Probing the criminal mind

HE WEARS THE HAT WELL — Forensic Social Worker Robert Carey sits at his desk at his Bridgton counseling office located in the William Perry House.

HE WEARS THE HAT WELL — Forensic Social Worker Robert Carey sits at his desk at his Bridgton counseling office located in the William Perry House.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Robert Carey knows what lies inside criminal minds. For the past 33½ years, Carey, a forensic social worker, has probed deeply into minds that have lost regard for society’s rules, and are paying the price behind bars.

It is a huge responsibility, often stressful and disappointing, yet hugely rewarding, Carey said recently in an interview at his Bridgton office of Counseling Solutions, tucked discretely in the rear first floor of the historic William Perry House.

“You can’t fix the world,” said Carey, who has testified in court cases and spent his first 12½ years working with police on emergency calls, helping to talk down someone who has threatened to kill themselves or someone else.

“I was a very young man, and it was very exciting. It was an incredible learning experience, because you had to learn on your feet and there was no room for error. Someone could get hurt.”

He has found it just as rewarding, however, to solve broader problems within the criminal justice system, especially those that keep people safe on both sides of the bars and help criminals turn their lives around.

“There’s an old social work saying — you’re walking along and you see all these babies floating facedown in a stream. Do you run over and try to save the babies who are drowning, or do you run upstream and try to stop what’s causing it to happen?”

Having relocated to Maine three years ago to escape the urban sprawl of his former home in Massachusetts, Carey now works a slower-paced 50–60 hours a week, compared to the 80 hours a week he worked for two decades as Clinical Social Work Supervisor at Taunton State Hospital.

He spends roughly half his time providing individual counseling in Bridgton, working mostly with people on probation or who are awaiting sentencing. The other half is spent working as a Clinical Social Worker inside the Androscoggin County Jail, both counseling inmates and staff, the latter on ways to identify and respond safely with inmates depending on their mental or emotional issues.

At Taunton State Hospital, he co-chaired a Safety Task Force that developed a safety-training program that was adopted throughout the state. Jails and prisons are a much more controlled environment, but it takes less than a second for an inmate to strike out and hurt — or kill — a guard or fellow inmate. He’s seen it happen.

“We also have an old saying in the jail system: ‘If you’re still alive when you leave, it’s been a good day,’” he joked. Carey said the staff at ACJ are very dedicated and close-knit, and he is enjoying working with them.

Somehow, although he talks as if he has “retired” to Maine, he also finds time to work as a Safety Consultant on behalf of the National Association of Social Workers. Right now he is helping to draft new legislation to provide hospital-based psychiatric confinement of inmates with acute mental illness, along with helping to develop a new therapeutic riding program at Ring Farm Equine Therapy in Bridgton for post-war veterans with PTSD.

Carey’s goals at ACJ are humble; as a cognitive therapist, he tries to help the inmates understand and cope with being in jail while they are there, and to begin to identify their problems and address them.

“It’s very solutions-oriented work. It’s very pleasurable. And it’s effective,” he said. Recently he was able to calm down an angry young man experiencing jail for the first time by explaining to him that jail is society’s “time-out.”

Carey sees too many people with emotional problems or who are mentally ill become “stuck in the system” because of policy decisions on deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill made decades ago. Jails have become the holding pens for society’s mentally ill population, comprising, by some estimates, over half of the jail population at any time.

“Right now there’s no mechanism, no safety net, that reaches out to these people. They languish — which is horrendous,” said Carey. The National Association of Social Workers in Maine is trying to move the legislation to allow psychiatric transfers from jail forward this session, he said.

He is hopeful, but in the meantime, he does what he can. Looking outside the large window in his office that overlooks Shorey Park and Highland Lake beyond, Carey said he loves living with his wife Ellen and their horses in their cape-style Bridgton home, which reminds him of the friendlier, more rural life now lost to most of Massachusetts.

When he really does “retire,” he said, he just might leave his office long enough to take his fly-fishing pole down to the lake during a break in his day.


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