PHILIPSBURG--Mental health patients in St. Maarten have a new legal defender: Victims of Mental Health Foundation. Any person harmed by treatment, actions and/or decisions of Mental Health Foundation (MHF) in Cay Hill, in particular the relatives of the six patients who died an unnatural death in 2020 and 2021, can approach the new foundation for legal assistance and advice.
The foundation incorporated February 7, 2022, is an initiative of local criminal lawyer Geert Hatzmann who is supported in this and legally assisted by two board members in the Netherlands. Hatzmann is the lawyer for the family of Caulette Julien, a 42-year-old mental health patient who was found dead in the clinic’s isolation cell on August 25, 2020. Her death has been classified as unnatural by former police doctor Dr. Michael Mercuur. The cause of death is unknown to date.
Julien suffered from bipolar disorder. She was alternately depressed and manic, but posed no danger to herself or others, witnesses said. Nevertheless, she was locked up, and it turned out that she had already spent three weeks in a bare cell in the clinic. For part of that period her attending psychiatrist Dr. Kitty Pelswijk was in COVID-19 quarantine at her home. She had not transferred her patient’s care to another doctor. When Dr. Pelswijk was notified of Julien’s death, she broke off her home quarantine and drove to the clinic in Cay Hill.
Earlier that year, Dr. Pelswijk was responsible for the solitary confinement of a Surinamese. The young woman, who had no residence papers for St. Maarten and no health insurance, was kept in solitary confinement by the psychiatrist for three months, starting from the first week of 2020.
“From a legal point of view, this was an unlawful deprivation of liberty,” Hatzmann said. “There is no legal basis for keeping a patient locked up for so long. Admission to the clinic and treatment must comply with the principles of efficiency, subsidiarity and proportionality. According to the law, long-term admission requires permission from a judge. The treatment must be supervised. As it turned out, Dr. Pelswijk systematically ignored advice from fellow psychiatrists and imposed her will.”
On the initiative of Pelswijk, herself Surinamese, a medical flight to the Surinamese capital Paramaribo was arranged for the woman in April 2020. The cost of this was borne by the taxpayers in St. Maarten.
The four patients who died an unnatural death in 2021 – two of them committed suicide – were all under treatment from Dr. Pelswijk. According to testimonies, the psychiatrist on occasion prescribed medication without having seen her patient in person, without prior examination. She allegedly also suddenly changed medication on which certain patients relied, resulting in withdrawal symptoms or patients having to deal with new side effects.
Dr. Pelswijk has limited experience as a psychiatrist. She graduated in October 2017 in Suriname and her experience as a practising psychiatrist is largely limited to her position at MHF in St. Maarten.
The medical management of MHF was reinforced a year ago by Pelswijk’s former internship supervisor in the Netherlands, Erik Hoencamp, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Leiden University, formerly employed by the Parnassia Bavo Group that offers mental health care in The Hague.
Hoencamp signed a six-month contract with MHF in exchange for an exorbitant fee, a villa with swimming pool, car, telephone and extras. His wife was also awarded a job at MHF as a skills trainer for clients at the day-care and for MHF staff.
As the clinic’s medical management, Hoencamp and Pelswijk were responsible for prescribing medication to patients and the administering of sedation to people in crisis situations.
Two of their patients died unnatural deaths in July 2021.
On July 22, 2021, Lance Thomas (48) was found dead in the police holding cell in Philipsburg that is used by MHF to detain patients. The reason Thomas was detained is not clear; he was not a suspect of a crime and there was no Declaration of Insanity, a so-called KZ-verklaring, the document needed to put a patient in solitary confinement. The criminal investigation that was launched in August 2021 has not yet resulted in a final report.
Days after Thomas was found, a mother found her son lifeless at her home. The young man had received an injection and pills prescribed by MHF. According to his mother, he had not slept for a few days. After an MHF nurse came to administer the medication, her son fell asleep. The mother left the house for a while. When she came back, she made the gruesome discovery. “He never woke up,” she said.
The cause of death has not been established. Toxicological research cannot take place in St. Maarten, blood samples must be sent to the national laboratory of Curaçao. The single mother cannot afford the cost of this research.
Victims of Mental Health Foundation call on family members and patients to contact Hatzmann law offices in Philipsburg. “Depending on the number of victims who come forward, I am considering initiating a class-action lawsuit,” Hatzmann explained. “This is an unprecedented move in St. Maarten, in which the foundation brings a collective claim for damages to the court on behalf of the group of patients and family members.” The claim can run into millions of dollars.
According to the articles of association, Victims of Mental Health Foundation will represent the bereaved, legal representatives and curators of patients who have died. The objective of the non-profit charitable organisation is to assist in and offer “the advising, consulting and deploying (legal) assistance to patients of the Mental Health Foundation and their dependents and relatives.” Adding that, “The Foundation shall pursue its objectives through all other legally permissible means.”
The Managing Board consists of attorney Geert Hatzmann as president, legal advisor Peter Bruns as treasurer and Bouwe de Jong as secretary. The board is preparing a class-action lawsuit, representing a group of patients and relatives, against Country St. Maarten, including the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labour, alleging unlawful deprivation of liberty of patients and unjustly denying appropriate mental health care to certain groups of patients, including children.
MHF was given the mandate from the Government for mental health care of all patients in St. Maarten and, according to the foundation, is not entitled to exclude certain groups of patients nor to have patients wait for months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist while their situation requires crisis intervention.