Family member alleges Middletown’s Whiting Forensic staff teased about patient suicides
MIDDLETOWN — After federal authorities conducted what one lawmaker termed a “scathing assessment” of Connecticut Valley Hospital policies and conditions a decade ago, the mother of a woman in state care for seven years after that report testified Monday she witnessed staff openly laughing about patient hangings.
The Legislature’s Public Health Committee hearing at the state Capitol in Hartford followed the arrests of 10 employees of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services who work for CVH’s Whiting Forensic division in Middletown, where those found incompetent to stand trial are held.
The paid suspension of 31 Whiting Forensic employees, on leave for alleged policy violations or accusations of criminal acts, and the arrests of 10 staff members who have been charged with multiple instances of cruelty to persons and disorderly conduct triggered the hearings.
Those charges stem from arrest warrants that detail a 24-day period — Feb. 27 to March 22 — during which authorities allege the brother of Al Shehadi, who came forward to testify Monday, suffered a sustained pattern of attacks and provocations.
All the allegations involve that single patient who is still confined to Whiting.
Martha Healy told legislators it was the culture of the unit her daughter, Karen, was in that was most disturbing. “It was a joke for several weeks,” Healy said. “Staff would yell out to one another, ‘What are you doing today?’
“‘Just hanging around, just hanging around,’” she recalled hearing employees say. “As a visual, I still think of that with horror.”
Her daughter, who was hospitalized at CVH from 2007 to 2014, but not on the Whiting Forensic ward, said she witnessed staff putting their hands on clients, causing bruises, as well as making fun of them.
She said employees conveyed to her that she’d never leave their care. “There were some staff who did believe in me, and it was their efforts and support, as well as my family and doctors,” that ushered her toward recovery after suffering reactions from medications and undergoing hip surgery at CVH, Karen Healy said.
State Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, referenced what he called a “scathing assessment” conducted a decade ago by the U.S. Department of Justice prompted by patient suicides that determined “plans and procedures were supposed to be in place but were not working.”
“We’ve rectified and appropriately addressed all of the areas that were identified in that report and risk management findings,” Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, told Logan.
“People should not be judged because they have long-term psychiatric and physical illnesses,” Karen Healy said. “Everyone deserves the chance to be treated well and have a normal life as possible.”
“The report confirmed CVH has an appropriate system for responding to and tracking allegations of staff abuse or neglect of patients but CVH lacks an adequate system for collecting, organizing and tracking patient injuries and incidents,” Logan said, reading from the DOJ report.
“This is similar to having a video camera, but not having anyone look at the video camera on a regular basis,” Logan told Delphin-Rittmon.
Monday’s public hearing testimony continued until at least 7 p.m., said state Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell.
“I’m disappointed with DMHAS’ testimony. I asked for multiple items almost a month ago in writing from the commissioner in order to have an intelligent conversation, looking at policies, procedures to make sure this never happens again,” she said.
It’s a delay that is making her suspicious, Christie said.
Delphin-Rittmon told Carpino her letter was received after the one sent by state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton.
“The content requested — and I’m not making excuses here, I’m just trying to be frank — it’s probably over 5,000 to 8,000 pages of content,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “We have a duty, we have to go through them to make sure everything is redacted. I think that may even be a low estimate.”
Carpino told her she’s heard from a number of CVH retirees about a “toxic environment on campus” that caused them to fear for their safety and they were forced to omit facts from patient records or change records.
“And I hope that is not true,” Carpino said to Delphin-Rittmon, who told her she’s encouraging staff to come forward.
“There’s multiple avenues to do that. They can talk to supervisor or client rights officer or HR. They can be assured that we’re taking this seriously,” Delphin-Rittmon said, adding that the administration “has increased the real-time monitoring of video surveillance and retrained and re-educated staff on reporting mechanisms.”
Calling it a “toxic culture” on the CVH campus, Christie said, “These people deserve to be treated with respect. I’m horrified with the state that this is the way they treat people.”
Many DMHAS workers do the right thing, Christie said. “I think they care about the patients but they’ve seen the abuse and mismanagement and they’re afraid.”
Dr. Michael Norko, acting director of the Whiting Forensic division, said the hospital collects data on patient incidents, which is then presented to management in quarterly reports.
“Anything on patient injuries, patient assaults, patient-on-patient assaults, patient-on-staff assaults,” he said is among the information.
“There are quality improvement officers responsible for doing that and the results of those reports are discussed by the hospital’s governing body and also with the advisory boards for both the Whiting Forensic division and for CVH in general,” Norko said.
“The patients who were abused obviously need to be attended to, but also, we have to remember the good people that work there have to deal with the grief that this tragedy has brought about,” said Jim P. Murphy, who testified during the hearings.
“You can’t take a big brush and say all Whiting is bad because it’s not. You had a cavity down there in the tooth,” said the advanced practice nurse, who specializes in psychiatry.
“The cavity has to be drilled. It has to be cleaned and we have to restore some reasonable order down there,” Murphy said.
Murphy said he believes there must be a distinction as to what unit is responsible for the alleged maltreatment.
“The proposals that were made (by DMHAS staff) were insufficient, and a truly independent entity, preferably a nurse, (should conduct an audit) considering that the things that occurred were under the purview of the nursing department. That fact was greatly overlooked and understated,” he said.
DMHAS has set up an abuse hotline at 877-277-9471.