Whiting Forensic Services at Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH) is transitioning to its own standalone hospital, separate from CVH. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org
Whiting Forensic Hospital CEO Hal Smith testified Monday afternoon before the task force. CT-N

The number of reported harmful incidents last month at Whiting Forensic Hospital, the state’s only maximum security psychiatric facility, decreased by almost 60 percent compared to the same month in 2018, according to hospital officials.

During a presentation this week before a state-appointed task force, Whiting’s CEO Hal Smith and Chief Medical Officer Tobias Wasser said there were 102 reported incidents— a wide-ranging term that refers to a verbal or physical event that may or may not involve an injury to patients or staff— in May 2018. Monthly counts varied over the next 12 months, spiking in February at 141, then declined steadily until May 2019, when 41 incidents were reported.

Monday’s meeting was the third since lawmakers approved the creation of the task force about a year after a whistleblower alleged that staff were abusing a Whiting patient. State police charged 10 employees with abusing William Shehadi, now 60, after watching hours of videotape that showed Shehadi being repeatedly kicked, hit and tormented by staff in 2017. Thirty-seven other staffers were placed on administrative leave because of the abuse and, according to state officials, all but one has since “separated from state service.”

Hospital officials did not comment on the criminal allegations, however, and instead focused on the limited data they provided to task force members.

Wasser suggested the uptick of incidents in January and February of this year could partially be due to the cold weather. “I think on the whole we had a lot more people who were inside, and who were a lot more grumpier than they usually are,” he said.

Allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation also trended downward over the past year, according to Wasser and Smith. Like “incidents,” such allegations are broad and can involve a range of staff misconduct, from napping on the job to physically abusing a patient.

“Whiting is the safety net hospital for the entire state’s mental health system for individuals who have been deemed ‘too dangerous, unmanageable and challenging. They are amongst our most challenging patients.”

Whiting CEO Hal Smith 

There were 18 such allegations in May 2018. Generally, the number of complaints trended downward for the next several months, but peaked at 14 around December. There were two allegations in May 2019.  

“For the last six weeks, we’ve had zero,” Smith said.

The Whiting task force is charged with eight objectives, including considering the creation of an independent office responsible for oversight of the facility, assessing the implications of a state law that says Whiting patients do not need to be present when their belongings are searched, and evaluating the need to conduct a confidential survey that would assess the employee work environment at Whiting and Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH), which are located next to one another in Middletown.

Whiting separated from CVH on May 1, 2018, following an executive order from then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. In the year since its separation from CVH, Whiting has expanded its advocacy department, instituted new policies and pilot programs like music therapy, and strengthened its academic affiliations with universities for major clinical departments. More critically, perhaps, the hospital has also established a position for a behavior management specialist and held morning reports chaired by upper-level employees so workers can review all incidents over the past 24 hours and go over procedures for reviewing patients on higher observation levels.

Patients can be admitted to Whiting through a variety of means: commitment by the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board; a criminal court order to restore a suspect’s mental competency to stand trial; a transfer from the Department of Correction; and via a voluntary or involuntary civil commitment.

“Whiting is the safety net hospital for the entire state’s mental health system for individuals who have been deemed ‘too dangerous, unmanageable and challenging,” said Smith, Whiting’s CEO. “They are amongst our most challenging patients.”

Of the roughly 220 patients at Whiting, half are white, a third are African American, and other ethnicities account for the remaining 17 percent. They range in age from 19 to 89, Smith and Wasser said, and 92 percent are male. Patients sent to Whiting by the state’s psychiatric security review board tend to stay anywhere from 10 to 15 years, or 15 to 30 years, Wasser said, whereas those sent to the hospital so they can be made competent to stand trial are generally at Whiting for 60 to 120 days. Wasser estimated that “between five and 10” patients currently in the hospital have been there for more than 20 years.

Kathy Flaherty, CT Legal Rights Project director Julia Werth / CTMirror.org

Kathy Flaherty, the executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc., gave a short presentation on the rights of people held in Whiting. “There is a general provision in the Patients’ Bill of Rights that prohibits discrimination against people with psychiatric disabilities,” Flaherty told the eight-member task force.

Outlining the Connecticut Patients’ Bill of Rights, Flaherty said Whiting patients have the right to refuse medication, electroconvulsive therapy and restraint, though forced treatment is allowed under certain circumstances. They also can wear their own clothes and keep their personal possessions, participate in their recovery plans, and should receive humane and dignified treatment.

“They are not always observed,” Flaherty said of patients’ rights, “but as Nancy [Alisberg, task force member] observed, this is why patient advocates exist.”

Flaherty told the task force that, as with people held in other facilities, Whiting patients have a right to fresh air and should not be treated the same as someone convicted of a crime.

“You have to remember these are psychiatric hospitals,” Flaherty said. “These are not correctional institutions.”

Before concluding her presentation, task force members asked Flaherty to attend a future meeting and give a history lesson on why the state legislature created a bill of rights specifically for patients receiving psychiatric care. “They didn’t have to do that. They did it for a reason,” Flaherty said of lawmakers’ efforts.

“In many ways, this is not new. It’s a very long-term problem,” Kim Beuregard, president and CEO of InterCommunity Health Care and a member of the task force, said shortly before the members voted to approve Flaherty’s upcoming history lesson. “And I think that’s what we really have to grapple with, as the task force. There’s hundreds of little things we can say, ‘Do this, do that, change this, change that,’ but it’s really about the culture of the work.”

The eight members of the task force are: Kim Beuregard, President and CEO of InterCommunity Health Care; Mike Lawlor, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven; Paul Acker, Chief of Staff at Advocacy Unlimited; Nancy Alisberg, Former Managing Attorney at the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, and Former Legal Director of Disabilities Rights Connecticut; Linda Schwartz, RN, Former Connecticut Commissioner of Veteran’s Affairs, and Former Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning at U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs; Lori Hauser, Board Certified Forensic Psychologist at Whiting Forensic Hospital; Shaun Mastroiani, manager of an assisted living facility; and John Rodis, MD, President of Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center.

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Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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