Failure to protect the vulnerable
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
For the parents of children born with profound mental retardation, serious psychiatric illness and physical disabilities, life is filled with gut-wrenching, heart-breaking decisions: How do I care for my child? If I can't, who can I trust to love him, tend to his physical needs and keep him safe? How will I know if he's hurt or needs help?
For families unable to care for such children at home -- a decision that often carries with it a lifelong burden of guilt and worry -- the options include one of Missouri's eight large, state-run habilitation centers, two children's centers, nine psychiatric centers or hundreds of privately run group homes scattered throughout the state.
Tragically, Missouri's record of safeguarding its mentally disabled residents can be summarized in one word: Failure.
A lengthy investigation by reporters Carolyn Tuft and Joe Mahr, published last week in the Post-Dispatch, documented 21 deaths related to the abuse or neglect of mentally disabled people in the care of the Missouri Department of Mental Health between 2000 and 2005. Another 24 deaths between 2002 and 2005 were classified by the department as "unexpected." These were not reviewed by state officials until reporters brought them to their attention.
After fighting for months to obtain state records, Mr. Mahr and Ms. Tuft also uncovered 2,287 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect, resulting in 323 injuries since 2000.
The stories are appalling:
— Randy Stuart was found dead, face-down on his bed at South County Habilitation Center, blood dripping from his nose and staining a wall nearby. A medical examiner ruled he died of natural causes. He was 44.
— A worker at Northwest Habilitation Center put Rutherford "Rudy" Wallace in water so hot it peeled the skin off of his legs and genitals. Although he writhed and screamed in pain, no one called 911. He died days later in the hospital from complications from his burns. He was 35.
— Gary Oheim was left lying in one place for so long his bed sores became severely infected. A state caseworker assigned to visit him at a private group home in Bolivar never even went into his room. He died at age 40.