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Abuse allegations, arrests mount at state mental hospital

HARTFORD, Conn. — At Connecticut's only maximum-security psychiatric hospital, staff members put a diaper on a patient's head, threw food at him, poured water over him, put salt in his coffee, kicked him and placed a mop on his head after cleaning a floor, according to a state report.

Thirty-one staff members at the Whiting Forensic Division hospital in Middletown have been suspended, and nine have been arrested. More arrests are expected, police say, and calls are pouring in with more allegations of misconduct and abuse, according to a state lawmaker who is calling for legislative hearings.

Current and former staff members, as well as patients' relatives, are alleging abuse of other patients and staff wrongdoing, she said.

"It's really incomprehensible that this could happen in this day and age," said Sen. Heather Somers, a Republican from Groton. "It's like something out of a Stephen King novel. I think it's very important that we, as legislators, get to the bottom of this. If you are put in the state's care, you should be cared for. You shouldn't be tormented."

Somers did not disclose the names of the people who have called her, but she did say some of their allegations include staff abusing patients, overriding of doctors' orders and forgery of doctors' signatures on documents.

Whiting is part of Connecticut Valley Hospital, a psychiatric care complex run by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The division includes 106 beds for patients in maximum security and another 141 beds for those in "enhanced security." The patients include people found not guilty of murder and other crimes by reason of insanity, and others committed voluntarily or involuntarily by civil courts.

Nine staff members were arrested and charged this month with cruelty to persons and disorderly conduct.

The arrests were in connection with a 62-year-old male patient found in a report by the state Department of Public Health to have been kicked, jabbed, poked and taunted by staff over several weeks this year. The agency investigated at the request of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which regulates the hospital, following a whistleblower complaint.

The arrests followed the suspensions of 31 employees on claims they took part in the abuse or knew about the abuse and did not report it. Many incidents were recorded by surveillance cameras.

The patient was committed to Whiting in 1995 after being acquitted by reason of mental disease or defect in the killing of his father in Greenwich, according to his court-appointed co-conservator, Karen Kangas. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, autism spectrum disorder and other conditions, and has been combative with hospital staff, according to the Public Health Department report.

"He's been traumatized," Kangas said. "That's not how we should be treated when we have cancer, and it should not be how we're treated when we have mental illnesses. I just couldn't imagine that this all went on."

The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services called the allegations "reprehensible" in a statement, saying it is co-operating with the police investigation and vowing to "do whatever is necessary to prevent future incidents."

The 31 employees possibly face further discipline including being fired, as well as the possible loss or suspension of their state licenses, officials said.

Officials with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services want to talk with Somers — co-chair of the legislature's Public Health Committee, which oversees the department — about the new abuse allegations, said department spokeswoman Mary Kate Mason.

The hospital workers' labour union, District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement that patient abuse is unacceptable. The union is calling for new management, better training and more staff at the hospital.

Among the staff members arrested was a forensic head nurse, Mark Cusson, 49, of Southington. Cusson is in a "state of shock" over his arrest and believes he will be found innocent, said his lawyer, Brian Woolf.

"We have information from a variety of sources that this patient was an extremely difficult patient and some of the actions they took were justified," Woolf said.

Whiting and Connecticut Valley Hospital have come under fire for problems with patient care before.

In 2005, the U.S. Justice Department notified the state that it was beginning a civil rights investigation of Connecticut Valley Hospital. Department officials said the hospital had a history of failing to protect its patients from harm, noting three patients killed themselves over 15 months in 2003 and 2004. Investigators also said that staff used restraints too often and that psychiatric services were inadequate.

The Justice Department and state reached a settlement to resolve the problems in 2009, and federal officials said the hospital had achieved substantial compliance with the settlement terms by September 2013.

In 2002, a patient at Whiting, James Bell, died of a heart attack while be restrained by staff members. The state later settled a wrongful death lawsuit by Bell's family for $2.3 million.

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