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Settlement Ends Psychiatric Center Suits

March 21, 1990

ATLANTA (AP) _ A multimillion-dollar settlement has been reached in a group of lawsuits arising from a sexual abuse and malpractice scandal at the Annewakee Inc. psychiatric treatment center for adolescents.

The terms of the settlement were sealed, but The Atlanta Journal- Constitution and The Gwinnett Daily News quoted anonymous sources as saying the settlement would provide at least $34 million to the 110 plaintiffs.

Allegations in the lawsuit included sexual abuse by counselors and psychiatric malpractice.

″I believe that everyone is relieved that we can get the past behind us and move on to the future,″ said Jim Weiss, who was named Anneewakee’s executive director in 1987.

″All the appropriate issues of the past have been addressed to include education of staff and appropriate measures to ensure that something of this nature would not occur in the future,″ Weiss said.

″I’m pleased that it’s over with,″ said lawyer Joe Watkins, who represented the Hospital Corp. of America, which has taken over operation of the centers. ″It represents a lot of things people on both sides need to put behind.″

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jack Etheridge announced the settlement Monday during a pretrial hearing for one of the lawsuits against Anneewakee Inc.

In that suit, five male former patients alleged they were sexually abused by Anneewakee founder Louis J. Poetter and James C. Womack, former co-director of therapeutic services. They also claimed they had been defrauded of psychiatric and educational services by the Anneewakee program.

Combined with two earlier out-of-court settlements, the total payout of the Anneewakee settlements is $36.3 million, the highest ever in Georgia, according to the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.

Randall Blackwood, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said they will set aside $1 million for a Patient’s Rights Trust Fund. Etheridge said the fund will be overseen by a court-appointed board and be used to compensate former patients of Anneewakee who can demonstrate they were harmed but were not plaintiffs in the cases.

Poetter founded non-profit Anneewakee Inc. more than 27 years ago as a long-term, wilderness-based therapy center for teen-agers with psychological problems. Hundreds of people have undergone treatment at the Douglas County, Rockmart and Carrabelle, Fla., campuses.

The facility has been plagued by troubles, including accusations against Poetter, 70, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in April 1988 to sodomizing 12 male former patients at the Douglas County facility.

Womack, 42, was convicted in November 1988 of sodomizing two 16-year-old male former patients. He was sentenced to three years in prison on one charge and 20 years probation on the other. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed his conviction and prison sentence on the first count Thursday because the statute of limitations had expired.

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