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Family Of Murdered Social Worker Pushes For Increased Safety Measures06:28
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Kimberly Flynn, mother of murdered social worker Stephanie Moulton, leads a rally in Peabody in support of Stephanie's Law. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)
Kimberly Flynn, mother of murdered social worker Stephanie Moulton, leads a rally in Peabody in support of Stephanie's Law. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

The murder of a social worker in a Revere group home earlier this year continues to raise questions about the care of mentally ill people in Massachusetts.

Deshawn James Chappell, a schizophrenic with a criminal record, is charged with brutally murdering 25-year-old social worker Stephanie Moulton while the two were alone at the group home in January.

Moulton's family members are set to be at the State House Tuesday, pushing for increased safety measures for social workers. Chappell's family will be in court, arguing that he's too mentally ill to stand trial.

Lobbying For Regulation

Stephanie Moulton's mother, Kimberly Flynn, is asking lawmakers to approve what's known as "Stephanie's Law." At a rally over the weekend, Flynn explained that the measure would require the state to equip social workers with so-called "panic buttons" — emergency call buttons they could wear around their necks to immediately summon 911.

"We'll never know exactly what happened in that place or what went on between the two of them but I will tell you this — on my daughter's soul — this will never ever happen again."

Kimberly Flynn, mother of murdered social worker

"The reason that this is such a big issue with me was the day we had my daughter's wake," Flynn said. "There were girls who came in introducing themselves as members of staff who worked with Stephanie. They were all 5 feet tall, weighing 100 pounds, and that was my daughter.

"My hair stood on end and I said, 'No other mother can ever be pulled into a police station and sat down and told that this happens,' " Flynn said.

Police told Flynn that her daughter was beaten and stabbed, and her body dumped in a church parking lot.

A Tragedy For Two Families

"My daughter Stephanie just got engaged, she was about to get married. The night before she died she found her wedding dress," Flynn said. "What happened to her was horrendous. We'll never know exactly what happened in that place or what went on between the two of them but I will tell you this — on my daughter's soul — this will never, ever happen again."

Moulton, the first in her family to graduate from college, had a bachelor's degree in social work. That gained her an entry-level position with the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, the company that runs the group home in Revere. It is one of the largest behavioral health care providers in Massachusetts. Moulton was earning just over $14 an hour, which was a higher than average salary for most social workers in group homes in the state.

Chappell had been at the Revere group home for just a few weeks before Moulton's murder. Chappell's lawyer, Jeff Karp, said with a long history of mental illness that included several psychiatric hospitalizations, his client fell through the cracks.

"I believe the evidence will show that he was not treated to the full ability or capacity at that particular center," Karp said.

Chappell began showing symptoms of schizophrenia about eight years ago when he was 19. Since then, he has accumulated a long criminal and mental health record. Both advocates for social workers and for the mentally ill say this case points to a failure in the mental health system.

"Both families have undergone a horrible tragedy," said Toby Fisher, a policy specialist with the Service Employees International Union, which represents about one-third of mental health workers in Massachusetts. The union is pushing for several safety measures for workers and for clients.

"It isn't just Stephanie's family," Fisher said. "It's really Yvette, the mother of the accused killer, and their family, because they really, for all practical purposes, lost their son. And I'll never know whether this could or could not have been avoided, but I think both families would agree that Stephanie should not have been left alone with that man."

Is Moulton's Death A Sign Of Systemic Problems?

The state says it provides services to 19,000 people with serious mental illness. There are just over 600 psychiatric hospital beds in Massachusetts. So, much of the care of the severely mentally ill is done by private companies like the North Suffolk Mental Health Association.

Federal officials fined the company $7,000 for safety violations after Moulton's death. A state task force released a report calling for more resources for the mental health system.

"This is an indication of a system that's broken," said Laurie Martinelli, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Massachusetts. She said budget cuts have negatively affected mental health care.

"The budget is going down as the need is going up, so it's going in the wrong direction," Martinelli said.

Martinelli said the State Department of Mental Health funding is down $60 million from what it was three years ago. Two years ago the department cut one-quarter of its case managers, people who oversee clients and their treatment. State officials say Massachusetts, like all states, has faced unprecedented fiscal problems but the department continues to provide quality mental health care.

In fact, the last time a state mental health worker was killed by a client in Massachusetts was before the severe budget cuts. In 2008, Diruhi Mattian was stabbed while visiting her client, 19-year-old Thomas Belanger, who is charged with her murder.

Mattian's supervisor was Skip Stuck, the CEO of Family Continuity, a group that provides outpatient mental health services across the state. Since Mattian's death, Stuck has been working on improving mental health worker training. He said budget cuts do affect mental health treatment, but workers overall are safe.

"Whenever there is a high-profile injury or death it's easy for us all to say things are getting worse," Stuck said. "But we do hundreds of home visits a week. We serve thousands of clients and for the most part, things go very well. It's unclear to me that things are getting worse, but it's also unclear to me that things are getting better."

According to the report from the state task force, years of budget cuts have affected care and some staff are not working in safe conditions.

Flynn has filed a wrongful death lawsuit that alleges that several mistakes led to her daughter's death.

"Everybody keeps telling me that I don't look angry but I hide my feelings well," Flynn said. "To be honest, I really want to be screaming at these people who actually killed my daughter. They all did. They're just as guilty as he is, everybody — the mistakes. We're all angry but we have to keep it in for Stephanie."

After her testimony at the State House, Flynn will go to court for a status hearing for Chappell. His trial is scheduled for April.

This program aired on September 27, 2011.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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