Families tell of beatings, assaults
Lawmakers conduct hearing into alleged abuse at hospital
By LEE WILLIAMS, The News Journal
DOVER -- On a rainy night at Legislative Hall, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers spoke in excruciating detail about years of beatings and sexual assaults inside the Delaware Psychiatric Center.
They recounted phone calls from DPC about a son or daughter who was strapped at the ankles and wrists to a cot, and then secluded in a room at the state hospital. They angrily recalled the unreturned phone calls left for doctors and administrators at DPC.
One mother, crying the entire time, recreated for lawmakers attending a legislative committee hearing Tuesday how her daughter suffered multiple bruises from attendants who immobilized her inside an admissions unit called Kent-3.
Another mother told lawmakers how a male patient stuck his hand down her daughter's pants.
"My daughter was housed on K-3, with some of the most difficult psychiatric patients in the state, young, innocent and scared," said Janice Ambrose. "It made me sick to have to leave her there."
Tuesday's more than four-hour hearing is the first of at least two scheduled public hearings of the Delaware Psychiatric Center Investigative Committee. The bipartisan group of 11 House members and one alternate was organized by House Majority Leader Richard C. Cathcart, R-Middletown, to investigate allegations first raised in a series by The News Journal about patient abuse, sexual assault and intimidation of staff members who report abuse inside DPC.
"We're here for the purpose of giving families, former patients and employees the opportunity to testify before this committee," Cathcart said as the hearing began. "We're also going to give the administration an opportunity to testify. We will take that information and put that into a report, which could include recommendations, which could include passing the information we gather on to another authority."
One of the first to testify was Ambrose. In tears, which continued throughout her testimony, she said her first hint at problems was a phone call from a male nurse who said her daughter was being forced into four-point restraints.
"I said I need to speak to a doctor," Ambrose said. "Of course, I didn't get a response."
An attending physician never spoke to her, she said.
"My daughter was in restraints, off and on, for two months," she said. "I visited her when I could."
Ambrose was told her daughter had been "sexually inappropriately touched by another patient."
"I told all of them that my daughter had never been sexually active," Ambrose said.
"Before I even got home that day, a resident called me and said there had been another incident," she said. "Another patient had put his hands down her pants."
Patients heavily drugged
Ambrose saw patients so drugged they were "sitting half in and half out of chairs, while attendants sat and talked on their cell phones."
Her daughter went days without eating, she said.
"The staff there, they're not trained, not all of them," she said. "This state has a problem from the bottom up, and the top down."
Ambrose didn't know about other problems in Kent-3. "But I do know this, something bad happened there. I can see it in my daughter's eyes. I need some help. My daughter needs some help, and you've got to do something. Please don't look the other way. There are things going on in that facility, and they're scrambling to cover them up."
Cathcart called for the investigatory hearings last month after reading The News Journal series, but before two DPC attendants were arrested, one for allegedly breaking a patient's jaw and the other on charges of raping a female patient in a toilet.
Cathcart invited Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Vince Meconi, DPC director Susan Watson Robinson and her boss Renata Henry, director of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, to the hearings.
None of the three testified Tuesday, although Meconi and Henry were criticized by witnesses who appeared before the committee, which met inside a packed hearing room on the second floor of Legislative Hall.
"I strongly disagree with Secretary Meconi's Aug. 20 press release, in which he expressed his 'shock and disappointment' over 'unfounded and unsubstantiated claims' made against the DPC," said Maryanne McGonegal, a longtime community activist. "Mr. Meconi has had ample opportunity to respond to the stories which have been uncovered. I am here to state unequivocally my continued support of the reports published in The News Journal."
McGonegal called for immediate change at DPC, starting from the top. Her testimony drew applause from the crowd.
"I call for the resignation of my friend and former co-worker, Secretary Vince Meconi, and Renata Henry, Director of Substance Abuse and Mental Health," she said. "The people of Delaware deserve no less."
In 2001, when McGonegal was a research analyst for the Legislature's Joint Sunset Committee, she prepared a report about DPC to lawmakers.
"From the information I received then, and from the information I receive now, there's abuse going on," she said. "It pains me to say it, but you'll hear the exact opposite from the DPC administration."
Not everyone told the committee about problems at the state hospital.
Zanthea Benson is a certified nurse's aide at DPC. She's been there for 17 years and for the last year and a half, she's been assigned to Kent-3.
"I enjoy working with the patient population at DPC, which has become my second family," she said. "I believe the good definitely outweighs the bad. Yes, there have been allegations, but it doesn't mean it's everyone as a whole."
Committee member Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr., R-Delaware North, asked Benson whether DPC had improved over the past five years.
Benson said, "The work experience has gotten better. We do work pretty much as a team. Patient care is our number one priority."
Ken Burton, who started at DPC in 1970 as a housekeeper and is now a licensed practical nurse, said he believed patient care has improved.
"Every facility has some issues, and I do personally feel they do not go unrecognized at DPC," Burton said. "In all of my 37 years, there has never been one moment of doubt, fear or retaliation."
Valihura asked Burton if he'd seen abuse. "Seen I have not, heard of, I have," Burton said.
Low pay, Burton said, has resulted in hiring younger employees at DPC who are not as responsible "as the more mature adults."
Cathcart asked if there could be a better process for screening employees.
"I do," Burton said. "You have to be able to dig deeper."
Hired despite convictions
Employee background checks has been a key issue at DPC. At least two DPC employees, including attendant union President Gregory Boston, continue to work at DPC despite prior felony convictions.
Speaking to lawmakers, Boston addressed for the first time The News Journal's report about his conviction for shooting two men in the face with a shotgun and several felony charges through the mid-1990s, prior to his being hired by DPC.
"I have a past criminal record," he said. "It is that, past. I deeply regret the life I once led. Society is hard on those who are troubled. We would never stand by and watch those patients be disrespected, neglected or abused."
Boston, who has worked at DPC for 16 years, said he has been the target of an abuse allegation inside DPC, but that he tries to contain incidents before they escalate.
"I am offended that all the good work that has been done, and all the lives saved by DPC workers have been discredited," he said. "At this particular job we save lives. Those things are not being mentioned in the paper.
"To me, we take patients to the movies, to the buffet, we treat them like family. Does abuse happen? I'm sure it does, but those are isolated incidents."
Tony Dunn of Wilmington told the committee his son was assaulted three times at DPC, once by a patient and twice by staff members. He said he "pressed charges" against the staff for hurting his son, but the charges were later dropped.
"It's not just the state hospital, it's the state of Delaware that needs to change," said Dunn, who said he suffers from psychiatric problems. "I'm a little bit appalled this has gone unnoticed for so long."
Melaine Minear, a Dover resident, told lawmakers she is "a member of a family that has endured 30 years of a roller coaster ride."
Minear's brother was transfered to DPC from the state prison in Smyrna.
"This is not a board game, Secretary Meconi," she said. "The players are real people."
Minear said several members of her family met with a contract psychiatrist about her brother, but years of phone calls to DPC produced no answers other than a form letter from Meconi.
"I should frame it and put it on my wall. It's insulting," she said. Minear believes DPC hides misconduct "behind the walls of confidentiality. You have no idea how this has cost our family."
Before Tuesday's hearing, Meconi criticized the format, insisting that lawmakers obtain signed waivers from patients' families and from any DPC staffers who testify about problems at the state hospital. He also complained about the scheduling, insisting that he and his leadership team shouldn't have to wait until a second public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 11, to respond to complaints raised during Tuesday's hearing.
Depending on information that comes from the hearings, Cathcart said a full investigation by federal authorities may be necessary. Cathcart has said he may turn over all of the findings directly to U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly, along with a request for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Connolly, who was invited to attend the hearings as an observer, has said he notified Justice Department regulators in Washington, D.C., about possible civil rights violations at DPC.
Most of the major criticisms of DPC are not expected to come during the two public hearings. Cathcart said more than a dozen witnesses have said they want to brief lawmakers behind closed doors, and the committee has several confidential meetings planned.
Look at entire system
Jill Shute, who serves as vice president of the board of directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Delaware, urged the committee "to not stop this investigation at the walls of DPC, but to move out into the community to assure that adequate staffing and quality care are provided there as well."
"As a NAMI support leader for the last 24 years, I have heard hundreds of stories from families whose loved ones receive care from the state mental health system," Shute said. "Many families tell of the caring nurses and attentive doctors at DPC who provide quality care, while other families have tragic stories of unmet needs in Delaware's fractured mental health delivery system."
Shute criticized the hospital for a constant turnover of administrators who were booted out for bucking the system.
"We believe it is significant that during the 20 years of NAMI-DE's monitoring, the state hospital has had 11 different directors, several of whom were driven out or terminated because they dared to advocate for quality care," she said.
Shute cited three concerns and gave the lawmakers a list of recommendations:
* The well-being and safety of patients at DPC.
"Delawareans with mental illness deserve to receive their medical treatment free from physical and verbal abuse and humiliation," Shute said. "The patients at DPC are some of Delaware's most vulnerable, misunderstood citizens."
Her advocacy group is concerned about the use of restraints and seclusion within DPC, and she cited federal legislation passed in 2000 that restricted the use of restraints, adding that in "2004, the medical director of the [Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health] implemented an initiative to eliminate the use of restraints because others methods of de-escalating a patient are more effective and humane."
* A healthy living and working environment.
Shute said that NAMI-DE understands that the age and disrepair of some of the buildings on the DPC campus "precludes providing the highest quality environment."
"We applaud Governor Minner for requesting a new building designed for the delivery of quality care," she said. "However, until that building exists, maintenance at DPC cannot continue to be deferred. NAMI-DE asks for repairs and upgrades to be made promptly at DPC."
* Quality care from a medically focused treatment plan.
More than anything, Shute said, DPC needs an experienced psychiatrist as its medical director whose sole responsibility is overseeing medical care.