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Bipartisan legislative task force focuses on mental health

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HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) -

After a long day of listening to testimony on gun control, the members of the bipartisan legislative task force discussed how to properly deal with mental health issues on Tuesday.

The Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety held a public hearing to discuss various proposals and ideas for curbing gun violence in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton on Dec. 14.

On Dec. 14 , Adam Lanza, 20, shot and killed his mother while she slept in her bed before going to Sandy Hook Elementary School where he killed 20 children and six adults. He then killed himself as police entered the school.

One of the people who spoke in front of the task force Tuesday was Jennifer Maxwell, whose 6-year-old son Bryce escaped the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

Bryce was a student of Victoria Soto, who was shot and killed protecting her children. He ran away from the school that day and continues to have nightmares since the tragedy. 

However, Jennifer Maxwell told the task force that she is more worried about her 12-year-old son, who suffers from multiple mental illnesses such as Asperger syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and how she has had a hard time getting him help.

"I have been trying for over nine years to get him the services that he needs," she said.

Maxwell said her older son gave her a bruise after fighting Bryce for the remote.

Lawmakers told Eyewitness News despite the amount of money being spent on mental health, there is a lack of coordination and there needs to be more help for younger children.

"It is our responsibility to provide all children an opportunity to develop survival skills to address the stress they encounter, " said Taina Amaro, whose niece, Anna Marquez Green, 6, was killed at Sandy Hook School.

Michaela Fissel was another person who spoke at the hearing and she told Eyewitness News that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, she said there weren't a lot of services when she was younger.

Fissel said today she is off medication and is working for the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness of Connecticut that helps people with mental illness.

"I attempted suicide," she said. "The supports that I needed were not made available to me at that time. I was overly medicated and that was the solution."

While it is believed that Lanza suffered from mental illness, the public may never know more than that because his health records have been sealed due to confidentiality laws.

"I would argue that HIPAA laws do not protect someone that is dead and someone who has been involved in a crime," said mental health worker Sheila Matthews.

Leroy Gardner, who was diagnosed as bipolar, waited all day to testify and said the stigma of having a mental illness can be hard. He told Eyewitness News that some turn to drugs and violence because they can't cope.

"It needs more emphasis placed on that," Gardner said. "This is a serious aspect to public safety and community well being."

Hundreds of people packed the hearing room Monday, waiting for their chance to weigh in on the gun control debate following the mass shooting in Newtown last month.

More than 1,300 people signed up to testify in front of the bipartisan legislative task force at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford Monday. 

There are those who want more gun control and others who already claim there is more than enough.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I respect their opinion," said Neil Heslin. "I just wish they would respect mine and realize it could have been their child."

Heslin told lawmakers he dropped his son Jesse off at Sandy Hook Elementary School on the morning of Dec. 14.

Twenty minutes later, 6-year-old Jesse, 19 of his schoolmates and six educators were killed.

Heslin urged lawmakers to ban assault weapons like the one used in Newtown, as well as high-capacity magazines.

The group is looking at school safety, gun control and mental health issues. It's tasked with reviewing the current laws, along with taking the input from these public hearings and make recommendations for new legislation by March.

Connecticut lawmakers said there is pressure to act, adding the number of bills could end up in the hundreds.

"What are the odds of a meaningful number of them getting passed?" asked Sen. Scott Frantz. "A lot smaller than people think at this point."

On Wednesday, the entire 52-member Gun Violence Prevention & Child Safety Task Force will hold a public hearing at Newtown High School to hear from the community there.

The hearing will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Newtown High School Auditorium, at 12 Berkshire Rd. with registration starting at 4:30 p.m.

The public's comments will be limited to three minutes and preference will be given to victims, first responders and public officials. People can submit their testimony at the following link or by emailing asaferconnecticut@cga.ct.gov.

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