Being able to assess events and evidence in order to come to a reasoned conclusion based on facts is the hallmark of our justice system. The courts are there to get to the truth, so justice can be served. But the Court in Maine failed to identify Dr. Eleanor (Ellie) Handler’s mental disability until it was too late — even though documented evidence of her mental illnesses had been presented to them from the start of the case. As a result, justice was not served, and a loving mother and father lost all parental rights to their son, David, on October 15, 2007.
“Obviously, in addition to continuing to lie to the Court about her actions and defy court orders, Dr. Handler is unable to exercise reasonable judgment,” stated the Assistant Attorney General Matthew Pollack on September 14, 2007.
Finally, the State understood that Ellie was “unable to exercise reasonable judgment.” During the previous two years in which the case unfolded her lies had never been connected to her mental illnesses.
The pattern of her lies which broke Court orders obviously centered on her need to see her husband Russell and David. It’s true she let her husband have access to their son. It’s true she desperately tried to see her son once he was taken out of her custody. And it’s true she lied about these events.
“I was emotionally desperate,” said Ellie in a recent interview.
She deliberately did not tell the truth, because she was trying to keep her family together, while child protective services and the courts were pulling them apart. Legal implications simply didn’t mater to a mother with a mental disability. Emotionally being around the people she loved took precedent. In her state of mind, Ellie didn’t comprehend what breaking a protection order could do.
On October 23, 2007, the Court stated, “The Court did not base its decision on any particular diagnosis, but on the overall picture of Ms. Handler’s mental health, mostly her behavior and dishonesty.”
Although the Court’s “overall picture” saw that Ellie consistently lied, they never questioned her statements about Russell’s alleged domestic violence. From the records, it does not appear that Ellie’s mental health was ever considered a factor in determining the credibility of her assertions against Russell. These lies were the foundation the entire abuse case against her husband.
From the beginning, medical documentation was available for the Court to analyze that proved Ellie had major depression, PTSD, and personality disorder. Lying is a common symptom. Once caught up in the initial false accusation against Russell, she couldn’t find a way out.
The courts could have and should have put two and two together from the start. According to Eric Mehnert, attorney for the Handlers, because the state of Maine had prior knowledge of Ellie’s mental health condition, the Court should have conducted a Title 15 hearing to determine whether Ellie had capacity to assist in her defense.
“Knowing that Ellie lacked the mental capacity to make reasoned decisions in her best interest, the State was obligated to appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) for her,” said Mehnert.
But Ellie was left to struggle on her own, which only exacerbated her delusions. At a time when her mental illnesses could have been getting better, it is apparent that the case and being forced to make decisions on her own made her condition worse. All this could have been avoided with a GAL, and Ellie right now could be with her son.
The Court did not see that there was any reason to appoint a GAL for Ellie, because she had legal counsel. But her lawyer at that time argued, “There is no evidence that any mental condition of Eleanor’s prevents her from appropriately parenting David.”
Her attorney was only doing what the client wished. That’s the paid legal obligation of a lawyer. But Ellie was not mentally capable of deciding what course of action would have been best to take. That is why a non-biased GAL was so badly needed.
Ellie’s extensive medical knowledge allowed her to hide certain symptoms from doctors.
“I knew if I told them about my delusions they would lock me up. I couldn’t risk that — that would mean losing David,” said Ellie. “But by lying I ended up with drugs that made my state of mind worse.”
Ellie took psychometric tests which she also manipulated using her medical knowledge. Again, she did so in fear of losing David.
“Dr. Handler’s behavior including her outright lies … show that any honesty that Dr. Handler may have shown on the tests was either faked or fleeting,” stated Pollack.
On the wrong medications, lying to doctors, to caseworkers, and to the courts should never have been held against a woman who suffered hideous crimes of rape and molestation from her grandfather starting at the age of five.
The Department of Health and Human Serves and the courts treated Ellie as a person capable of making rational decisions, despite evidence before them that proved her mental disorders were real. Even the way in which she lied was symptomatic of her illnesses. But the courts misinterpreted her lies, and they consistently did not look at her mental illness records.
Ellie was living in her own world, thinking only she knew what was best for her family. In her state of mind, what any official authorities told her to do simply didn’t matter. She was a mother out to protect her son and marriage. She honestly didn’t understand why authorities would not believe her lies.
“I was so confused,” said Ellie.
The truth was she had a serious mental disability that was overlooked by the Court. If a GAL had been looking out for Ellie’s best interests, court orders would not have been broken. To ask a person with clear mental disorders to obey a court order is irrational — if not criminal.
“The Federal District Court in Maine has held that Section II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that State agencies ensure that they provide equal access to services for those individuals who are suffering from a disability,” said Mehnert. “Here, the State’s failure to ensure that Ellie’s mental health did not serve as a barrier to her understanding the process and what needed to be done to reunify with David constitutes a violation of the ADA.”
The State failed to ensure that Ellie had equal access to services in the child protective system by not appointing a GAL. By doing so, the State has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As a result, a seven-year-old boy lost the only family he had ever known, when all parental rights were taken away from the Handlers.
The Court’s conclusion stated that, “Based on the evidence, the Court is left with the inescapable conclusion that Ms. Handler’s mental health issues, at least in part, prevent her from making rational decisions.”
The Court was incapable of making a reasoned ruling, at least in part, because they never appointed a GAL for Ellie’s mental disability.