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Story of Abuse at Brain-Injury Center Demands Attention, Action | Rosemary Goudreau

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Story of Abuse at Brain-Injury Center Demands Attention, Action | Rosemary Goudreau

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Story of Abuse at Brain-Injury Center Demands Attention, Action
Monday, July 30, 2012 — Rosemary Goudreau

It is impossible to look at the pages-long list of abuse allegations from a Central Florida facility for people with brain injuries and not wonder how the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation is allowed to remain open. 

Sexual abuse. Mental abuse. Burns. Broken bones. Bruises. Cuts and punctures. Bizarre punishment. Excessive restraints. Inadequate supervision. Confinement. Exploitation. Harassment, belittlement, ridicule. Beatings. Asphyxiation. And death. Five times, death. Including one patient who predicted it.

Since 2005, state investigators have received 477 allegations of adults and children abused at FINR. In one month alone, the institute racked up 10 calls to the Florida Abuse Hotline. Not infrequently, it's gotten six, seven or eight abuse-hotline calls a month.

It’s hard to hear the stories from one of the nation’s largest brain-treatment facilities, tucked in Wauchula, 50 miles southeast of Tampa. People like Peter Price, who swallowed five fish hooks and 22 AA batteries to facilitate his escape. Or Janet Clark, who keeps a picture of herself after she was “kicked in the eye with a boot.” Or watch the video of a man who is picked off the couch by a staffer and thrown to the floor. Or the video of a brain-damaged man punched, elbowed and slapped by a staffer who says: ‘You are getting on my damn nerves.”

It sounds like Chattahoochee in the 1950s.

But for the investigative work of reporter David Armstrong of Bloomberg, we still would not know about what appears to be a culture of abuse at this 196-bed facility in rural Hardee County.

And because today’s media marketplace is so fractured, most people still haven’t heard about it. In the old days, reports like this came from newspapers and after a pick-up by the Associated Press, would be splashed across Florida’s front pages. But this story was uncovered by Bloomberg, an online news service, and it has yet to reach Florida’s mainstream media. It’s as though a tree has fallen in the forrest. Did it make a sound?

Surprisingly, FINR is not some financially strapped, government-run facility for the down-and-out. Rather, Armstrong reports this is a for-profit facility paid big bucks to care for insured people with brain injuries caused by car accidents, on-the-job injuries or medical mishaps. And it’s a go-to place for the nation because there are so few alternatives for treating brain-injured people.  

In a majority of the abuse complaints, state investigators were unable to substantiate the allegations for reasons we will never know because state law keeps it all secret -- a good law for providers, not so much for patients and families.

Still, on 36 occasions, patient abuse was verified, and the matter turned over to law enforcement, though no one can say what happened next. In another 98 incidents, credible evidence of abuse was found, but not enough to prosecute. That means on at least 134 occasions, state investigators believed some of our most vulnerable citizens had been abused, some in horrific ways. 

So now we know. Why isn’t someone doing something?

The District of Columbia took action, Armstrong reports. It recalled 21 patients from FINR after investigators found the institute's seclusion and restraint policies violated patients' human rights.

Connecticut, too, raised concerns after a young woman it sent there told caregivers she could easily kill herself because overnight staffers slept on the job. A month later, someone on the morning shift found her dead, her hair wrapped around her neck.

“There are obvious flaws in the investigations conducted by Florida agencies and there appear to be weaknesses in the system of oversight and monitoring of the FINR facility and its program,” Connecticut investigators said.

Weaknesses, indeed. So what is Florida doing about it? Since the Bloomberg story appeared, people with oversight responsibility have been strangely silent. 

So I called the three oversight agencies to ask their reactions to the story. I came away with a sense that because three agencies are responsible, no one is responsible. I also heard a subtext of finger-pointing and doing the bare minimum.

The Department of Children and Families, which investigated the 477 allegations, says it turned over actionable cases to law enforcement and notified sister agencies where appropriate -- the extent of its statutory authority.

The Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees physical plant and fiscal matters, says it investigated and notified the Department of Health and an accrediting agency of its findings -- the extent of its statutory authority.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health, which is supposed to enforce minimum care standards, could not provide the department’s response to the story -- four days after it was published. She said she was waiting to hear back from her agency’s experts.

At the facility itself, a man who answered the phone in the administrator's office, Bennie Colbert, promised someone would call back, but so far, no one has.

Given the gravity of what Bloomberg’s Armstrong has revealed about the culture at FINR, it’s imperative that Florida Gov. Rick Scott step up and do something to ensure the safety of people who can’t speak for themselves.  

It would be easy to call for the institute's closure, but given the challenges finding rehab centers for brain-injured patients, that’s a tough case to make. Besides, this facility is the largest employer in the county, and many good people count on it for their livelihoods.

But the governor should immediately send an independent, round-the-clock monitor -- someone who cares -- to ensure people are safe. That means today, right now, yesterday wasn’t soon enough.

And he should find out why DOH, which appears to be the lead agency, has failed to connect the dots and do something about an alarming portrait of abuse.

Meanwhile, members of the Legislature should reconsider the piecemeal division of “statutory authority” that lets the big picture slip through the cracks.

It’s easy to ignore the stories of people who are less fortunate, forgotten in some secluded Florida facility. But now that an investigative reporter has opened our eyes to this record of abuse, violence and death, it would be a sin to do nothing.

Rosemary Goudreau, the former editorial page editor of The Tampa Tribune, is the editor of Florida Voices, a state online opinion page and syndication service.

© Florida Voices

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