At 6-foot-5 and roughly 350 pounds, Joel Johnson-Liphart is a big man. So when, according to police, he hit his caretaker at their group home last week in Linthicum, it must have hurt.

Then the 25-year-old allegedly struck her repeatedly with a metal stepladder before trying to strangle her.

The attack took place at an Arc of the Chesapeake group home six years after another violent outburst involving Joel. That one resulted in the death of his grandmother at their home in Arnold. He wasn’t in prison because an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge had ruled he wasn’t competent to stand trial.

He has been diagnosed with autism and ADHD and has a history of behavioral problems. People who know him describe him as having the mental age of a 7-year-old child.

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In his family’s view, it was a terrified child who was yelling in the 911 call he made after attacking his caretaker.

“I tried to kill her. I hurt her,” he said, according to a police description of the call.

Joel poses a question for Maryland, and one with answers that have potentially violent consequences. Does the state of Maryland have the resources needed to care for someone with developmental disabilities who commits a violent crime?

Maryland has psychiatric hospitals for people with mental illnesses who harm others, but it’s not clear those facilities are equipped to handle people like Joel. Crisis care that can securely hold people who aren’t mentally equipped to cope with jail as they face charges is especially hard to come by.

“Tell your readers how difficult it is to get the help you need,” said Christopher Flohr, Joel’s attorney.

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We were sitting in a claustrophobic conference space Monday afternoon, just outside the courtrooms at the District Court building in Glen Burnie. Flohr had just convinced Judge Thomas V. Miller III to release his client to house arrest at Social Health Services Group.

Together with Joel’s grandfather, Robert Hoagland, and an uncle, Flohr had been desperately searching for someplace that could take Joel until the courts decide what to do with the latest charges.

“It’s been terrible,” Hoagland said.

During the bail hearing, Joel appeared through a video link from the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. It was his second appearance of the day; the first one in Annapolis was postponed to give Flohr a few more hours to secure a safe place.

When Miller asked Joel if he understood his rights as explained in a video played for all detainees, he answered unintelligibly. The most serious charges against him carry up to 30 years in jail.

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“He doesn’t even understand what I’m saying,” the judge told Flohr.

Hoagland and his wife, Dorothea, raised Joel at their home in Arnold. He’s been his grandson’s legal guardian since shortly after the outburst that killed his wife on Oct. 8, 2017.

That night, Joel got into a fight with his mother, which escalated to include an aunt. His grandmother, 72, was knocked to the ground and died five days later from injuries sustained in the fall.

An Anne Arundel County grand jury indicted Joel on involuntary manslaughter charges, but he never stood trial.

The Maryland Department of Health conducted an evaluation at Sheppard Pratt, the state’s largest mental health hospital, and determined Joel was unable to understand what had happened, the consequences, or to help with his own defense. They deemed him a low risk for future violence.

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Circuit Judge Stacy McCormick ruled him not competent to stand trial and ordered him released to Sheppard Pratt until a plan for his care could be developed.

A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment Monday.

Under state law, noncompetency rulings stay open for five years in case of a change in the diagnosis, according to a spokesperson for the Anne Arundel State’s Attorney’s Office. In 2019, however, a second Maryland Department of Health evaluation determined that nothing ever would change, given the nature of Joel’s disabilities.

His attorney asked that the manslaughter charges be dismissed, and McCormick agreed. The State’s Attorney’s Office appealed, but the Attorney General’s Office, which handles criminal appeals for local prosecutors, decided against pursuing the matter and the case was closed in 2020.

Three years ago, Joel was moved into the Arc of the Chesapeake group home in Linthicum. It was at least his second group home since leaving Sheppard Pratt, Flohr told the judge during Monday’s hearing in Glen Burnie, and the move followed an assault on Joel by another resident.

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A spokesperson for Arc of the Chesapeake declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of its employees and clients.

His new caretaker became an extension of his family care network, Flohr said. Just two days before Thanksgiving, however, Joel began to get upset.

Officer Thomas Jones wrote in charging documents that he and another officer arrived at about 8 p.m. to find Anne Arundel County Fire Department paramedics tending to Joel in the living room and treating the caregiver on the floor in the kitchen. She was sitting in a pool of her blood, semiconscious after the assault.

She was able to tell Jones that when Joel started showing signs of an outburst, she tried to calm him. He suddenly began beating her with his fists, and then, as he became more upset, with the folding step stool, according to charging documents. She grabbed him in self-defense, she told police, only to have him choke her.

It was Joel who called 911, repeatedly telling the operator that he’d hurt his caretaker. His family believes it was the statement of a child terrified at what just happened.

A District Court commissioner ruled Joel was not competent to understand judicial proceedings, and ordered him held at the Jennifer Road Detention Center near Annapolis. That’s where he remained over the long holiday weekend as Flohr and Hoagland searched for someplace that would commit to taking care of him, to make sure he and others would be safe.

By Monday morning, the Severna Park attorney had found Pearce Jalloh at Social Health Services Group in Columbia. Like Arc of the Chesapeake, it is a nonprofit that operates a network of group homes across several counties and offers services for people with developmental disabilities.

Jalloh, a program coordinator at Social Health Services, said his nonprofit agreed to take Joel, in part because he had worked with him at another group home agency. He was involved in planning his care there, including transport back and forth to school, and training his daily caregivers.

While there are hundreds of nonprofits that help people with disabilities, Jalloh said the key to working with someone in crisis like Joel is to focus on training his caretakers to meet a set of behaviors that are unique to the individual.

“We train our staff. We want our staff to know the individual,” Jalloh said.

Miller was dubious. He wasn’t willing to extend the declaration that Joel was not competent, and questioned releasing him to Social Health Services Group just on their word that they would keep him and others safe.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said.

In the end, though, the judge agreed to a form of house arrest and set a date for a preliminary hearing.

“We’re trying to put together a plan that works for him, but that keeps his caregivers safe,” Flohr said.

Monday night, Joel was still being held at the Detention Center. It could be as much as a week before his house arrest is set up and he is released to Social Health Services Group.

Flohr said that while the county jail mental health unit is good, it isn’t set up to help someone with developmental disabilities like Joel.

“It’s 10 times easier to find a bed for heroin addiction than it is mental health,” he said.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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