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A year after correction officer's suicide, family urges expansion of mental health coverage

Hartford — Exactly a year to the day since Correction Officer Jeramie Dewaine died by suicide in his work uniform at a cemetery in Lebanon, his family went before a legislative committee Tuesday to ask that workers compensation benefits be expanded to include correction officers who experience mental health issues after witnessing horrific events on the job.

Senate Bill 231 also adds emergency dispatchers and EMTs/paramedics to the coverage approved last year by the General Assembly for police officers, firefighters and parole officers.

Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook, in uniform as a show of support to front-line staff, sat with the Dewaine family as the late correction officer's daughter, Kara, told members of the Labor and Public Relations Committee, "We watched his spirt and soul deteriorate right before our very eyes."

He was 42 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the torso.

Dewaine had worked for the Department of Correction for 13 years, serving most recently as a key and tool man at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution. He had cut down inmates who hanged themselves, broken up fights and been assaulted on the job, but never talked about it at home, according to his family.

"He worked hard to provide for his family, having to internalize any emotional trauma he would bring home after his shift in the prison," his daughter testified. "Essentially, he would have to lead a double life in order to protect his family from the horror he saw."

The DOC's Critical Incident Stress Response team of trained staff and Cook went to Corrigan to support the staff after the Feb. 25, 2019, suicide, and the DOC was supportive of the Dewaines. But they wished there had been more emotional support available for Jeramie while he was alive.

The DOC has since met with Dewaine's widow, Rebecca "Becky" Desrosiers Dewaine, and as a result added a peer-to-peer Employee Assistance Unit, according to Cheryl Cepelak, deputy commissioner for administration for DOC. The EAU program's 24-hour hotline, 1 (844) 997-4EAU, has been busy, Cepelak said.

The labor committee members offered condolences to the Dewaine family and expressed support for expansion of the bill, which would allow those diagnosed with PTSD up to a year of compensation. The bill does not yet have fiscal information, such as the number of potential recipients and projected cost, attached.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a retired correction officer herself, said it has been her mission to recognize that PTSD is just as much an injury as a physical injury.

"I've had many friends of mine that have committed suicide during both my time in corrections and as a retired correctional staff," Osten said. "It's a tough, hard job that we need to make sure we're providing the correct resources for people to successfully retire."

The correction officers union, Council 4 of AFSCME, submitted testimony indicating that correctional employees have higher rates of depression, PTSD, suicide and divorce than all other first responders.

According to the testimony of Kelly Lynch, a licensed clinical social worker and EMT, the suicide rate also is skyrocketing in that population.

"EMTs and Paramedics feel ignored, disregarded, and uncared for," Lynch's submitted testimony said. "They do not feel they are able to talk about their trauma, and if they do talk about it, they report being dismissed or told to 'harden up' or quit."

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, a statewide association of towns and cities, testified in opposition of the bill, saying there has not been enough time to examine the impact the bill passed last year has had on workers compensation and municipalities.

The Connecticut State Firefighters Association submitted testimony opposing the bill, noting it doesn't feel that dispatchers, who usually experience the traumatic events by telephone or radio, qualify for the benefit under the current version of the law.

Qualifying events include viewing a deceased child, witnessing the death of a person, and witnessing or having contact with an injured person who subsequently dies or loses a vital body part or is disfigured.

"We believe that this program, only in its first year of infancy could be easily overwhelmed by the sudden addition of what may be hundreds (thousands??) of new beneficiaries unplanned for within Public Act #19-17," said the written testimony of Ted Schroll Jr., legislative representative for the firefighters association.

k.florin@theday.com

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