Northport couple sues DHHS in attempt to reform system

Posted Dec. 08, 2011, at 8:17 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 08, 2011, at 9:24 p.m.
Commissioner of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew speaks at a hearing in Augusta in October 2011.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Commissioner of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew speaks at a hearing in Augusta in October 2011.

BANGOR, Maine — A Northport couple has sued employees of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to reform how the system deals with mentally ill parents, their attorney said.

Russell and Eleanor Handler claim their parental rights to their adopted son David were wrongly terminated in 2007 after Russell Handler was diagnosed with cancer and Eleanor Handler was diagnosed with a mental illness, according to Joseph Baldacci, the Bangor attorney who represents them.

“They want to confirm he is alive, well and receiving the money he is entitled to through the disability payments the Handlers received,” Baldacci said in a telephone interview Thursday. “They also want to reform the system so DHHS proceedings are more transparent and not secret.”

A press release about the lawsuit was emailed to the media Tuesday night by Maureen Flatley of Essex, Mass., who has been described as a lobbyist and child advocate in Massachusetts.

The Handlers’ son has been adopted and lives out of state, according to Flatley.

The Handlers sued DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, as a successor to former Commissioner Brenda Harvey, and department employees Debra Potter, Claudia Kjer, Martin Smith and Christine Theriault in August in U.S. District Court.

The state has until Jan. 12 to reply to the complaint, according to information on the court system’s electronic filing system.

Susan Hermon and Ronald Lupton of the Maine Attorney General’s Office are representing Mayhew and the other DHHS employees. Hermon declined Thursday to comment on the case.

In addition to state officials, the couple sued former Waldo County Sheriff Bryant White and Bob Tiner, a Waldo County Sheriff’s Department employee, over Russell Handler’s treatment while he was incarcerated at the county jail in 2005 for allegedly assaulting his wife, according to a previously published report in a Waterville newspaper.

Information about the incident from Belfast District Court was not available late Thursday.

It could not be determined who is representing the Sheriff’s Department in the case. An attorney for the Sheriff’s Department has not entered an appearance yet in the case. Baldacci said Thursday he did not know who would be representing those defendants.

The complaint itself was not available because Baldacci and co-counsel Eric Mehnert of Bangor asked that it be sealed when they filed it in August.

Baldacci said Thursday that the complaint was sealed “out of an abundance of caution” because it contained confidential information from DHHS. Making that information public, he said, might violate Maine law.

“We are working with attorneys representing DHHS to get the complaint unsealed in the next few weeks.”

It is unlikely the case could be resolved before the end of next year.

Russell Handler was a senior official with MBNA and Eleanor Handler was a physician, according to Baldacci.

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