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Giving voice to slain social worker

In the year since, family asks change in group homes

BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

Kimberly Flynn and Bob Moulton attended court hearings for the man charged in their daughter’s slaying, Deshawn James Chappell.

The Boston Globe

Stephanie Moulton

For the past year, Stephanie Moulton’s parents have waited in legislative hearings, wearing buttons bearing her name. They have sat in the front row of the courtroom during hearings for the man accused of killing her, even when he was not there, so she can still have a voice.

On a recent day in Suffolk Superior Court, Deshawn James Chappell seemed to look back at them and made it all worse.

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With a new court-appointed lawyer recently appointed to Chappell’s case, Kimberly Flynn and Bob Moulton will have to wait even longer before the case is resolved.

“It’s head-banging,’’ her mother said in a recent interview as the family prepared for several vigils in her memory. “I just feel she’s getting lost in all this.’’

Justice, the family has realized in the year since Chappell allegedly killed Moulton at the mental health group home where she worked, has moved far more slowly than any of them would have liked, ensnared in a labyrinth of legal procedure and government bureaucracy.

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In the last year, the family has proposed a bill, to be called Stephanie’s Law. which calls for installation of panic alarms in mental health facilities. That proposal lingers in a committee.

The union that represents social workers has been pushing for a bill that would improve the oversight of community group homes. That legislation, introduced just weeks before the killing, has also stalled.

‘We just don’t want anyone to forget Stephanie. We don’t want it to happen to anyone else.’

Ann Tolkoff, dog owner
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And the state Department of Mental Health said it is still reviewing recommendations of a safety task force that it created after the killing.

Moulton’s family members and a close-knit community of mental health workers who support them plan three vigils across the state today, which would have been her 26th birthday, to call attention to the tragedy and the cracks they are hoping to fill. They say too much time has passed.

“We just don’t want anyone to forget Stephanie,’’ her mother said. “We don’t want it to happen to anyone else.’’

Moulton’s father added, “It’s Stephanie’s voice.’’

The killing occurred Jan. 20, 2011. Moulton, an aspiring nursing student who was engaged to be married, was months into her job as a social worker at a group home in Revere run by the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, a state contractor.

Chappell was 27, had a history of mental illness and violence, including the vicious beating of his stepfather, for which he served a prison sentence. According to court records, his family raised concerns with the group home days before the slaying that he was not taking his prescribed medications.

Moulton knew none of his history and was in the home with him alone.

Chappell stabbed her in the neck several times, prosecutors have said in court. He dragged her to her Chrysler PT Cruiser, and drove her to a parking lot behind St. George Greek Orthodox Home in Lynn, where he left her body partially clad, law enforcement officials said.

His initial attorney, Jeffrey T. Karp, planned to argue that Chappell was not guilty by reason of insanity. Karp expressed sympathy for the Moulton family but also said that Chappell’s mental health examiners should have realized the dangers once they learned that he had stopped taking his medication.

“The system failed both of them, especially her,’’ Karp said recently.

The Moulton family has filed a lawsuit against the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, arguing that the agency had no system in place for alerting employees to potentially violent clients.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in a rare action taken against a social services company, fined North Suffolk $7,000 for failure to provide a safe work environment, the maximum penalty allowed. The association has appealed the fine.

The OSHA violation raised some of the same issues that were identified by a task force the Department of Mental Health commissioned after the killing of Moulton and the stabbing death a week later of a Lowell homeless shelter worker, Jose Roldan.

Both groups cited a need for changes, including the development of proper safety standards for hospitals and for group homes, better training programs, and more spending on care.

“These were systemic issues,’’ said Toby Fisher, senior field policy specialist for the Service Employees International Union, the labor organization that represents care workers, who was a nonvoting member of the task force. He said a priority should be a new standard for assessing patients and sharing that information. That has not happened.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Chappell lived in a group home where Stephanie Moulton worked.

Paul F. Healy Jr., a retired first justice of Framingham District Court who cochaired the task force, said in an interview that the group sought to balance a client’s right to privacy with the safety of patients and their caseworkers.

He stressed that the majority of patients do not pose any threat to safety. But he also said he found that the system is unable to hold its clients accountable to requirements such as taking medication, something to which he, as a judge, was not accustomed.

The judge said members of the task force differed on points in the report. But all agreed that changes should be immediate and that more funding should be directed to mental health.

“The recommendations would go a long way to possibly preventing something like this, and that’s what we tried to do,’’ the judge said.

North Suffolk released a statement saying it could not comment on matters before the courts, but that the task force sparked a discussion about safety.

“The safety of staff and clients is, and has been, a priority,’’ the statement said. “The tragedy of last Jan. 20 stays with us, as we know it does with the families of Stephanie and all those involved.’’

Debra Pinals, acting deputy commissioner for clinical and professional services at the Department of Mental Health, is cochairwoman of a working group the department commissioned to review the task force’s recommendations.

Several recommendations have already been incorporated, she said. The department immediately provided training programs for staff and created jail diversion programs to better identify patients in need of care.

She said her working group is collaborating with vendors to review safety protocol and is reviewing recommendations such as whether to conduct background checks on patients and how to share that information.

But she stressed that the department has had to prioritize what changes it could implement in the time since the recommendations were made, according to available funding and the time it takes to properly review them.

Pinals said the department welcomes a proposed increase of more than 3 percent in its budget for next year, at $648 million, but overall spending is still far behind past years. The state spent $685 million for mental health care in 2009, for instance.

The Moulton family is focused on a much more modest figure: about $15 a month. That, according to the family, is what it would cost for a panic alarm that could be placed in a home such as the one where Moulton worked to connect a worker or resident directly to an operator.

Flynn said she understands the complexity of the legislative process and the time needed to assess proposed changes. She understands the criminal justice system, the need for a fair trial.

But if her daughter had known Chappell’s background, she would not have stayed alone with him, Flynn said. If someone else had known, they probably would not have let her, she added.

Flynn was frustrated at the recent court hearing, when a judge asked if Chappell understood what was happening and whether he agreed. “He had this look on his face, like it didn’t matter what he did,’’ she said.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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