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Lewiston shootings shined light on Maine's yellow flag law. But could another law have been used?

Pumpkins and flags line the curbside outside Sparetime Bowling, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, Lewiston, Maine, prior to the arrival of President Joe Biden.
Matt York
Pumpkins and flags line the curbside outside Sparetime Bowling, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, Lewiston, Maine, prior to the arrival of President Joe Biden.

People with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators. But over the past four years, there have been half a dozen high-profile incidents of violence in Maine by people with mental illness. John Nutting, a former state lawmaker, listed some of the towns associated with those incidents during a press conference at the state house Wednesday.

"Freeport. Turner. Poland. Yarmouth. South Portland. And Lewiston," he said.

There have been many questions in the aftermath of the Lewiston shootings about what could have been done to try to prevent them. Much of the focus has centered on the shooter's mental health and why Maine's yellow flag law wasn't brought into play. But
Nutting said a law he co-sponsored that was enacted more than 10 years ago might have prevented it and other tragedies.

It established a progressive treatment program, or PTP. It allows law enforcement, medical providers and legal guardians to petition a court to require a patient with severe and persistent mental illness to follow a treatment plan or face hospitalization. It also allows law enforcement to seize firearms.

"The PTP law is an excellent piece of legislation, if it is used," said Nutting.

But proponents of PTP say it's not used enough because people don't know about it. Yaicha Provencher said by the time she learned about it, it was too late.

"Thanksgiving Day, 2022, almost a year ago from today, the absolute most tragic thing happened," she said.

That's when the father of her two children, Justin Butterfield of Poland, murdered his brother, who she describes as Butterfield's best friend. Provencher said Butterfield had fallen into psychosis but couldn't get adequate treatment even though she and other friends tried several times to get him help. She only found out about PTP after the murder.

"Why does this PTP option get continuously get overlooked?" she said. "Justin met this criteria in every single area. So my question is why? Why wasn't he put on a PTP plan or even an application put in? Why did an innocent person have to lose their life before he was given proper treatment, before people started listening, and caring about what happens to him?"

Some at the press conference criticized Maine's Department of Health and Human Services for failing to train law enforcement on PTP. Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, whose agency tried unsuccessfully to contact Lewiston shooting suspect Robert Card in September after reports he had made violent threats, said he's not familiar with PTP.

"We have not received specific training on the progressive treatment program through the state or through anyone," he said.

But the law doesn't lay out a clear provision requiring that DHHS conduct trainings. And it's unclear if it could have been applied to Robert Card. The Maine attorney general's office points out that the law applies to people who are "patients" — and it's typically used when they're discharged from a psychiatric hospital to the community. And though advocates of PTP want to see it more broadly used, some mental health advocates say it should be approached with caution.

"If people are going to use it, there's gotta be some oversight about these providers who are providing the service," said Mark Joyce, director of the mental health program at Disability Rights Maine. "Because it's involuntary. Because you're being committed to that service."

Disability Rights investigated a 2018 death of a man enrolled in PTP. He was found dead in his apartment after providers reduced his supervision to every half hour, even though a plan had called for it to be 24/7. Joyce said Disability Rights issued recommendations that providers comply with standards of care and that the state develop effective oversight of the PTP program.

"And to my knowledge, none of that's been acted upon," he said.

Maine's Department of Health and Human Services says it has implemented the progressive treatment program in accordance with the law. A spokesperson says in a written statement that the Department is "deeply committed to working with law enforcement and the broader medical and behavioral health community to support individuals with complex mental health needs and to protect the safety and wellbeing of Maine people."