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Lawmakers hear calls to improve state psychiatric hospital

March 28, 2022 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Five years after a patient abuse scandal, Connecticut’s only maximum-security psychiatric hospital still needs significant improvements to its treatment programs, staff behaviors and oversight, members of a state task force told lawmakers Monday.

Members of the panel also told the Public Health Committee that Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown needs to be moved into an entirely new building because the current hospital is inadequately designed for psychiatric care and is in disrepair.

And in a controversial proposal, the majority of the task force members called for the elimination of the Psychiatric Security Review Board, which decides when Whiting patients can be released or transferred to other facilities, and allowing hospital staff to make some of those decisions.

The testimony came during a public hearing held by video conference on a bill that would make a series of changes at the 229-bed hospital, which houses people found not guilty by reason of insanity, defendants undergoing competency evaluations and other patients. The committee did not vote on the bill Monday.

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“We’re talking of decades, decades of issues,” said Dr. John Rodis, a task force member and former president of Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford. “When you hear of something that’s been going on for decades, you have to question where’s the accountability.”

Rodis added Whiting appears more like a prison than a hospital and “there was nothing about the environment that was nurturing and healing.”

The task force was formed in response to the abuse of a 62-year-old patient, William Shehadi, in 2017. Ten Whiting staff members were arrested, several were sentenced to prison time and nearly three dozen others were fired.

In a report issued in December, the panel said Whiting patients cited “a lack of opportunities for recovery, healing, meaningful growth, learning and vocational advancement” and recommended better programs. Too many patients are kept at the hospital past their discharge dates because of a lack of community programs. And the current building is in disrepair, with patients complaining of vermin, broken equipment and other problems.

“The building ... is something that you imagine a penal detention center of a third-world country,” said state Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican. “It is so bad, it actually took my breath away how horrible the conditions of someone having to work there or someone actually who is supposed to be there getting help would be placed in.”

In a survey commissioned by the task force of workers at Whiting and other psychiatric facilities on the Connecticut Valley Hospital campus, a majority of the more than 400 who responded said they witnessed staff-on-staff bullying and two-thirds felt their organization was not a good place to work.

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The task force recommended more staff supervision and training, and that managers better communicate with staff. It also recommended creating an inspector general’s office to review complaints, and strengthen the authority of an existing advisory board that cannot get hospital documents without making a request under public records laws.

State officials who oversee Whiting told the Public Health Committee that numerous improvements have been made at the hospital in recent years including the hiring of a chief executive officer, installation of a camera system monitored by an independent security agency and management changes that have boosted staff morale.

Nancy Navarretta, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which oversees Whiting, said the hospital is seeking national accreditation and “implemented significant changes in hospital operations to ensure the highest quality patient care.”

The proposal to eliminate the Psychiatric Security Review Board drew both support and opposition at the hearing. The bill only calls for a study on whether the board should be eliminated.

Former Hartford police officer Jill Kidik was slashed and stabbed by a woman later found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Whiting. The injuries forced her to retire. She told the committee Monday that she opposed eliminating the board because it would leave decisions to release or grant temporary leave to patients to one hospital staff member, and worried victims would not be notified of releases as they are now by the board.

“The idea that my offender could be free even for a few hours at the saying of one voice is unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “Unless you have endured what I have endured, you will never know the kind of sickening feeling that that idea gives me.”

Some patients who testified were critical of the board and its rejections of their requests to be transferred to less-secure facilities.