William Dean died on October 16, 2016, from natural causes. A lawsuit on his behalf was still being brought against the state of Maine. In March 2017, I found the article “State can’t be sued for selling property, euthanizing cat of man in its care, Maine’s top court rules,” and remembered the case at once. The Supreme Court of Maine ruled that lawyers suing on behalf of Dean’s estate could not sue the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for selling his properties and euthanizing his cat.
In May 2012, Dean, a man with an autism spectrum diagnosis and mental health needs, was institutionalized in Dorothea Dix Hospital in Bangor, Maine. He had entered a mental health crisis following the death of his mother. Sometime subsequently, the state of Maine euthanized a 10-year-old Himalayan cat named Caterpillar. She had been Dean’s companion for some time.
The state had successfully won conservatorship over Dean after filing a motion in court in September 2012. A family member had offered, in July 2012, be a conservator. The family member had asked the state to wait until she could ascertain this possibility, and was delayed by a family health crisis. The state decided to go forward with their motion before they heard back from her. The state never asked family members if they could care for Caterpillar before euthanizing her. They also sold or attempted to sell many of his possessions, including musical instruments and several properties.
Dean was finally released from Dorothea Dix Hospital in June 2013. He told the Bangor Daily News in 2015 that the euthanasia of Caterpillar upset him the most: “I get very emotional talking about it… I got her from a shelter. She picked me out.”
These types of incidents don’t seem to be a studied or analyzed area. But it’s not the first time people receiving care from mental health workers or the state have had their pets euthanized by care providers. An anonymous source who receives services told me workers once entered their home, and discarded many possessions. They also said:
I had three cats and the landlord wanted me to only have one but would allow me to keep two – they were all basically emotional support cats… My state social worker came in with a friend [of hers] and said she would take the youngest cat – I tried to say he wasn’t up for adoption but they wouldn’t listen and took him… Then they wouldn’t let me visit my cat…
I also had an older cat… we took him to the vet and the vet said he had diabetes and we could treat it to extend his life a bit and give him better quality of life too. So I wanted to do that. But again staff stepped in… and when I didn’t immediately say yes to killing my cat they kept him at the vet and wouldn’t let me take him home, and then called my mom and got her to make me sign the papers to have him killed.
These incidents show how much states and mental health workers devalue people with mental health needs’ lives. It is most profound when people enter institutional settings, but other settings are not immune.
We need far more protections for the rights of people who receive mental health care in any setting. The lawyer who was trying to sue Maine on behalf of William Dean has asked that the state consider legislation to prevent incidents like Dean’s. Maine and other states should enact legislation that keeps states and state mental health workers accountable, and protects the rights of people receiving mental health services in any setting.