Backstory: When Treatment Fails, Privacy Rules Shield Providers | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Backstory: When Treatment Fails, Privacy Rules Shield Providers 

Published December 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta's yearbook photo - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta's yearbook photo

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2023.


I thought the hardest part of profiling a man charged with murder would be convincing him to talk. Defendants in such cases rarely take the stand, let alone speak publicly before trial.

But Mbyayenge "Robbie" Mafuta, a young man who is accused of murdering his prison cellmate a year ago, was eager to tell me and my colleague Colin Flanders about his life in Burlington, where he developed a serious mental illness before his incarceration.

Instead, it was the agencies charged with helping Mafuta who clammed up.

Their initial responses were familiar and practiced. The nonprofits have policies, pegged to state and federal patient privacy protections, not to comment on clients — or even confirm that someone was one.

Mafuta, though, counseled by his public defenders, told us that he was willing to waive those protections. His lawyers provided us with stacks of Mafuta's medical records from the University of Vermont Medical Center, Howard Center and the Brattleboro Retreat that they had obtained to help prepare a likely insanity defense.

Flanders and I approached those agencies and others that had provided services to Mafuta, including the group home where he lived as a teenager and the homeless shelters where he sought respite but was also repeatedly kicked out of.

We told the organizations that Mafuta was willing to sign any necessary waivers to allow employees to discuss his case or provide his records to us. We asked for the appropriate forms.

Their answers surprised us. They weren't going to say or provide anything, even with Mafuta's permission. Mafuta couldn't even get his own records.

Champlain Inn shelter coordinator Heather Bush wrote that there were "multiple reasons" why guests at the homeless shelter could not obtain their own records. She didn't explain those reasons but alluded in other emails to a need to maintain trust with guests and "the integrity of the agency."

COTS, another Burlington homeless shelter where Mafuta stayed, told us it does allow residents to "review" some of their records under supervision of a COTS employee. But COTS does not extend that privilege to guests who were "exited for violent behavior," spokesperson Rebekah Mott said.

And Paul Detzer of Howard Center, the state-designated mental health provider for Chittenden County, told us that a "release is irrelevant in this case as the person is in jail and there is an active investigation happening."

Here was a young man who'd needed help — psychiatric care and a safe place to stay — but whose complex needs weren't effectively met. So Mafuta ended up, predictably, in prison, where he killed his cellmate.

Yet our ability to probe the system's shortcomings was limited, paradoxically, by policies that are supposed to protect the people it serves.

The problem isn't limited to Vermont. A couple of months after our story ran, the New York Times published an extensive investigation into the circumstances behind nearly 100 instances of violence in New York City committed by homeless residents with mental illness.

That city's social safety net, the Times found, had repeatedly "failed in glaring and preventable ways.

"Yet rather than be held accountable," the Times asserted, "city and state agencies have repeated the same errors again and again, insulated from scrutiny by state laws that protect patient privacy but hide failings from public view."

The Times had run into the same wall of secrecy that we'd encountered: "The agencies declined to discuss the failures even when provided with signed privacy waivers."

Their reporters were left wondering the same thing we were: Who are these policies really protecting?

The original print version of this article was headlined "Most Troubling Claim of Privacy"

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About The Author

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer

Bio:
Derek Brouwer is a news reporter at Seven Days, focusing on law enforcement and courts. He previously worked at the Missoula Independent, a Montana alt-weekly.

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