Whiting Forensic Services at Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH) is transitioning to its own standalone hospital, separate from CVH. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org
Whiting Forensic Services at Connecticut Valley Hospital is transitioning to its own stand-alone hospital, separate from CVH. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org

About a year after cruel, ongoing abuse of a Whiting Forensic patient was revealed, the legislature’s Public Health Committee has reported out three bills aimed at reforming the state’s only maximum-security psychiatric facility by increasing transparency and oversight.

The abuse of William Shehadi Jr., now 59 years old, was captured on videotape. The hours of recordings showed Shehadi being repeatedly kicked, hit and tormented by staff.

As a result, 10 staffers were arrested and 37 were put on paid administrative leave. Thirty-six of the 37 have since “separated from state service,” according to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DHMAS), which oversees Whiting.

In March, Shehadi’s brother, Albert Shehadi, filed two lawsuits on his behalf — one against the state and the other against 12 of the forensic nurses and treatment specialists whom the suit charges carried out the abuse.

The three bills now headed for the Senate floor would, among other things, create a two-year independent task force to monitor the facility; separate Whiting from the Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH) in Middletown (a change which already has been mandated through an executive order); and make staff at Whiting and other state behavioral health facilities subject to fines or even criminal charges if they fail to report abuse.

Once Whiting is its own hospital, the state Department of Public Health inspectors would be required to scrutinize operations at the facility at least every two years — or whenever a complaint arises.

The new state task force also would regularly evaluate the operations, conditions and finances of Whiting and Connecticut Valley Hospital.

Announcing two lawsuits on March 1 alleging abuse of William Shehadi, a Whiting patient, were, from left, attorney Antonio Ponvert III; Shehadi’s brother, Albert Shehadi; and mental health advocate Karen Kangas, Shehadi’s co-conservator. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org
Announcing two lawsuits on March 1 alleging abuse of William Shehadi, a Whiting patient, were, from left, attorney Antonio Ponvert III; Shehadi’s brother, Albert Shehadi; and mental health advocate Karen Kangas, Shehadi’s co-conservator. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, the Public Health committee’s Senate Republican co-chair, said transparency and oversight at Whiting have been sorely absent.

The new task force “has to be an expert board that can really look at this in a very critical way,” Somers said. “We need to transform this facility to a place where people have the opportunity to get the help they need and either go to a lower-secured facility or have the opportunity to have a life.”

She said the culture of the facility must change from what she calls a “culture of cruelty” to one that focuses on restoration and care.

Somers, and Sen. Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain, the committee’s Democratic Senate co-chair, said the bill creating the task force isn’t in final form and amendments are expected.

Gerratana also acknowledged that task forces have a reputation at the Capitol.

“Task force has a reputation around this building,” she said. “Task force means they don’t want to do anything, and that is not the intention of this.”

Under maximum security conditions, Whiting staffers generally care for patients with psychiatric disabilities, some of whom have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of mental disease or mental defect.

Those acquitted of a crime fall under the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB). On Tuesday, 87 patients were receiving treatment at Whiting — 38 of whom were committed to the PSRB.

Shehadi was committed to the PSRB in 1995 after being acquitted because of his mental illness in the killing of his father. He has been involuntarily committed to state custody ever since, and is now at CVH.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton.

According to DMHAS, it costs about $567,000 each year to treat a patient at Connecticut Valley Hospital. A spokeswoman said she couldn’t provide a cost specifically for the Whiting unit because the department does not calculate cost by division or unit.

This is not the first time Whiting and Connecticut Valley Hospital have been scrutinized. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report, finding that CVH failed to provide its patients adequate protection from harm, adequate psychiatric and psychological care and treatment, and adequate discharge planning and placement in the most integrated setting.

Creating a standalone Whiting hospital

One of the bills reported out by the committee, proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, codifies the executive order he signed in December separating the Whiting unit from Connecticut Valley Hospital.

Beds at Whiting will be consolidated with those at CVH’s Dutcher Enhanced Security building, creating a 229-bed stand-alone forensic hospital.

“The goal for Whiting is to be less of a prison and more of a therapeutic hospital setting,” Gerratana said.

According to DMHAS, Whiting is in the midst of its transition to a stand-alone facility. Once separated, the state Department of Public Health will conduct inspections every two years.

In recent years, DPH has inspected Whiting on behalf of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, because Whiting had patients on Medicare. However, Whiting voluntarily rescinded its certification as a Medicare provider last summer, retroactive to April 1, 2017, making it ineligible for Medicare reimbursement.

Whiting took that step because it did not meet CMS standards for discharge planning, according to an Office of Legislative Research report.

According to a DPH spokeswoman, all of its past inspections of Whiting on behalf of CMS came in response to complaints.

Both Malloy’s bill and another of those reported out of the Public Health Committee include new mandated reporting requirementsThere is currently no criminal penalty for failing to report patient abuse in DMHAS behavioral health facilities.

Under both bills, a mandated reporter that fails to make a report faces a fine of up to $500. If the failure is intentional, the employee would be guilty of a class C misdemeanor for the first violation and a class A misdemeanor for any subsequent violations.

DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon submitted written testimony in support of all three bills, though a spokeswoman defended current departmental practices.

DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org

Responding to the growing criticism that Whiting was poorly regulated and monitored, DMHAS spokeswoman Mary Kate Mason said the department has a “multitude of policies, procedures and oversight committees working on quality of care” at Whiting and Connecticut Valley Hospital.

Mason said these includes having managers and supervisors “working to ensure patient care is at the best quality it can be.”

She said supervisors provide direct oversight of staff providing patient care on the units and that supervisors are required to make rounds on each unit at least twice a shift. Managers also supervise staff and observe patient care during rounds.

Despite those procedures, the abuse of Shehadi was captured on videotape for weeks, and his attorney alleges it had gone on for years.

According to current state law, Whiting’s director is required to make quarterly reports to the Board of Mental Health and Addiction Services. When asked about this, Mason said that the reports had “just resumed.”

Additionally, when questioned about other state laws, Mason said the department complies with requirements to have an advisory board at Whiting and to have staff complete a psychiatric examination of every patient at Whiting not less than once every six months.

Access to videotapes

On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee voted out a pared-down version of a bill sought by the state Office of the Chief Public Defender that would have made changes to the PSRB.

Individuals under PSRB jurisdiction are called “acquittees.” The PSRB’s responsibility is to review the status of acquittees through an administrative hearing process and order the level of supervision and treatment necessary to protect the public.

The bill would require that any records or media recordings concerning an acquittee at a DMHAS facility be disclosable to his or her counsel with the acquittee’s consent.

The bill originally had allowed the release of those records and recordings without acquittee consent.

Christine Perra Rapillo, the chief public defender, said that section of the bill was most related to the Whiting abuse case. She said she has been told by the public defender who works at CVH that he rarely gets to see videotapes when he asks for them.

“We are happy this part of the bill is moving forward,” Rapillo said. “Hopefully, the need to obtain the consent of our clients will not slow down access to the video material. Attorney access is critical to both protecting our clients’ well being and effectively representing them before the PSRB.”

Delphin-Rittmon had expressed concern about the original bill in her written testimony because the information would be released without the acquittee’s consent. But on Thursday Mason said DHMAS “is pleased that (the bill) is moving forward with language that allows acquittees to give consent for access to any media related to them.”

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Mackenzie Rigg

Mackenzie is a former health reporter at CT Mirror. Prior to her time at CT Mirror, she covered health care, social services and immigration for the News-Times in Danbury and has more than a decade of reporting experience. She traveled to Uganda for the News-Times to report an award-winning five-part series about a Connecticut doctor's experience in Africa. A native of upstate New York, she started her journalism career at The Recorder in Greenfield, Mass., and worked at Newsday on Long Island for three years. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master's thesis about illegal detentions in Haiti's women's prison.

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