Several state lawmakers on Thursday called for an independent investigation into an Uptown psychiatric hospital that has seen a rise in complaints this year alleging that vulnerable children and teens were sexually and physically abused as a result of lax supervision and improper staff conduct.
Four Democratic legislators said they have written letters to Beverly “B.J.” Walker, the acting director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, urging a review of Chicago Lakeshore Hospital’s 60-bed children’s unit in the wake of published reports in the Chicago Tribune and by ProPublica Illinois about the recent problems.
Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat who for years has held statewide hearings regarding various child welfare-related systemic problems, said the recent issues at Chicago Lakeshore require more urgency. She has asked Walker to initiate a 60-day independent investigation by an academic or other expert in the field.
“We seem to be able to identify problems and then there’s no end,” Morrison said. “I want some leadership out of DCFS. I’ve set a timeline so that there’s accountability.”
DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak first called for the outside investigation after learning that the state child welfare agency has received 16 hotline complaints this year alleging that young patients faced further harm in the hospital. Paniak said that number is a lot, given that there were only 17 total in the three years prior.
DCFS spokesman Neil Skene said Walker is considering the lawmakers’ request, but he argued that several agencies already are looking into the hospital.
“The independent review is under way by the agencies with legal responsibility for oversight of hospitals, the (Illinois) Department of Public Health and the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid,” Skene said. “DCFS investigated the individual allegations of neglect and abuse and has added visits by its own clinical staff to focus on the safety and care of DCFS youth at the hospital. We have not seen a reason to complicate the reviews already being done by adding another review.”
The agency instead has stepped up the number of hospital visits its clinical staff make to ensure the well-being of young patients. DCFS said the hospital has been cooperative and the agency’s clinical staff has not uncovered evidence that children are at risk of harm.
In a separate letter, state Reps. Sara Feigenholtz and Greg Harris and Sen. Heather Steans also urged Walker to “swiftly” follow the agency’s inspector general’s recommendation.
“The reviewer should develop recommendations on how to proceed to guarantee the safety and best possible outcomes for youth who are patients at Chicago Lakeshore or those who might be admitted in the future, a remediation program and timeline, or whatever actions he or she deem to be in the best interests of the youth,” the letter said.
The hospital is in the district that Harris and Steans represent, and Feigenholtz has long advocated for child welfare issues in the House.
Earlier this summer, Harris had argued in support of the hospital after federal authorities threatened to cut funding over other issues. Harris said the hospital’s closure would exacerbate an ongoing shortage for inpatient psychiatric services in Chicago and the surrounding community.
On Thursday, Harris said he was unaware of the 16 hotline complaints until the recent media reports and urged an immediate independent review.
“It’s very disturbing,” he said. “I don’t really want to hear their excuses. I want to hear we’re taking each allegation seriously … and ensure that we take every action we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Many of the hospital’s hotline complaints this year centered on allegations of inadequate supervision that resulted in sexual activity or fights between underage patients. DCFS determined that seven complaints were unfounded and four were “indicated,” meaning the agency deemed enough credible evidence existed to substantiate the complaint. Five are pending.
Hospital officials, however, told the Tribune they conducted an internal investigation and determined that all 16 incidents were unsubstantiated. Paniak called that “ridiculous.”
In a pending investigation, a 7-year-old girl said a 12-year-old boy pulled down her pants and sexually assaulted her with his finger. At the time of the alleged Sept. 10 incident, the girl had been hospitalized for more than two months for homicidal and suicidal behaviors.
She also was one of two young female patients who accused a male staff member of touching them in a sexual manner. She said the worker kissed her and assaulted her with his finger in early September. The other girl, who is 12, told a counselor the man touched her breast in late August.
DCFS and Chicago police are still investigating. Chicago Lakeshore officials said the man has not been working at the hospital during the investigations.
In another pending complaint, the mother of an 8-year-old boy called the hotline Sept. 9 alleging her son was battered by peers, touched sexually and exposed to two masturbating roommates during the five days he was hospitalized. She told the Tribune that hospital staff failed to properly monitor her son’s safety.
“We put him there to get help, not to traumatize him further,” said the mother, who asked not to be publicly identified to protect her son’s privacy.
One of four cases DCFS has deemed credible was an April complaint from the mother of a 17-year-old patient with intellectual and mental health issues. The boy suffered a bloody mouth and facial cuts and bruising after two staff members dragged him to his bedroom and threatened to break his arm while pinning him down on his bed, with his arms held over the bedrail, according to documents.
An earlier federal letter regarding other safety issues had sparked Paniak’s review of the 16 complaints. She also noted that a few children in the hospital who are in DCFS’ protective custody because of traumatic histories of abuse and neglect still were hospitalized even though they had been deemed stable and ready for release. The problem has long vexed the state, which struggles to find places for these children to live.
Besides the state and federal investigations, the Tribune also found that four former adult patients have sued the hospital in the last year alleging sexual assault.
One man said he was sodomized by a much larger male peer in his room in 2015 despite warning staff of his safety concerns, according to one of the lawsuits. The man died earlier this year, according to his lawyer, but his family is continuing the suit.
There is precedent for an outside review.
Several years ago, DCFS had experts at the University of Illinois at Chicago investigate conditions inside various psychiatric hospitals, including Chicago Lakeshore. The university’s 2011 report found that inadequate staffing levels and lax supervision contributed to four incidents in which youths allegedly were sexually assaulted or abused by their peers.
The hospital sharply disputed the findings, and the report was shelved without further action.
The UIC review followed a 2010 Tribune investigation that uncovered multiple allegations of rape or sexual abuse of minors at a half-dozen area psychiatric hospitals, including four incidents at Chicago Lakeshore.
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November 1, 2018 at 03:51PM