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CIR sues public health agency over abuse investigation files

In response to a public records request from California Watch, the state in June released 169 pages of documents listing citations against developmental centers – but blanked out nearly every word.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has sued California’s Department of Public Health, seeking uncensored copies of nearly five dozen reports on physical abuse, sloppy medical care and neglect at state institutions for the developmentally disabled.

The lawsuit was filed in Sacramento County Superior Court in January, eight months after CIR requested citations issued by the department against facilities in Los Angeles, Orange, Sonoma, Riverside and Tulare counties. The institutions house about 1,800 patients with developmental disabilities, including those with cerebral palsy and severe autism.

In response to the public records request, the state in June released 169 pages of documents – but blacked out nearly every word. Thirty-five of the 55 citations appear to involve abuse of patients, and the rest outline medical care and neglect violations from 2007 to mid-2011.

An investigation by California Watch has revealed significant gaps in the information available to the public about abuse at state-run developmental facilities. In some cases, even relatives of patients injured or killed at the facilities have been blocked from obtaining information.  

When a 15-year-old girl at the Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County was murdered in 2009, the institution did not call her closest relative about the death – he heard later from the coroner’s office – and then blocked his attempts to get information on the police investigation.

CIR is requesting that the state release unredacted citations about abuse and other violations at the five centers, while keeping some medical information private. None of the citations include patient names, but they outline the circumstances behind each violation.

“When instances of potential abuse or violations of the law occur at state institutions, the public and relatives of patients have a right to the truth,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, CIR’s executive director. “We believe that the withholding of information in this situation undermines the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in society.”

Under state law, reports about the medical services provided to patients are considered confidential. Public health officials have therefore “aggressively redacted in order to comply with state law,” wrote Carrie Camarena, senior attorney for the Department of Public Health, in a July letter to CIR, which runs California Watch.

In its lawsuit, CIR argues that investigations of patient abuse cannot be defined as services rendered to patients.

“Near complete secrecy over citations chronicling serious violations of law and patient rights at these centers can’t be justified as necessary to protect information about underlying services,” said attorney Duffy Carolan, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of CIR. “In fact, the law expressly requires that these citations be made public in a variety of ways precisely because it is in the patient’s interest and the public’s interest that they see the light of day.”

California Watch has obtained uncensored versions of 15 citations issued against developmental centers by the Department of Public Health. By comparing these versions to the blacked-out sections provided by the state in June, California Watch was able to determine that the state redacted witness statements and other information that was unrelated to patient care.

The uncensored files include details of an assault against a disabled patient at the Sonoma Developmental Center in 2007, a janitor’s sex assault against a female patient, and multiple incidents in which caregivers hit and intimidated their disabled wards.

In its investigation, California Watch found that the Office of Protective Services, the police force that patrols the five developmental centers and investigates crimes there, has mishandled or ignored reports of abuse at the facilities. Hundreds of cases have been documented and then dropped without prosecution or detailed follow-up.

Patients at the centers have suffered more than 700 unexplained injuries, including broken bones and genital lacerations, since 2006, according to data published by the Department of Public Health. Those are in addition to 327 cases of patient abuse substantiated by regulators.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the public access advocate Californians Aware, said the state’s lawyers are misreading the privacy statutes when they apply them to the more detailed records of alleged abuse. Their interpretation is overly broad, he said.

“If that same kind of logic were applied to other situations,” Francke said, “you’d never know about violence in society because this or that privacy rule would be used to sweep it under the rug.”

Information difficult to find

The Office of Protective Services and some prosecutors also make it difficult to find reliable information about the effectiveness of the police department.

The Department of Developmental Services, which operates the police department, does not reliably provide annual crime numbers to the state attorney general’s office and the FBI. The Canyon Springs Developmental Center hasn’t turned over any crime figures the past five years. Three others – the Lanterman, Porterville and Sonoma developmental centers – have at least one year of missing data.

The Sonoma County district attorney’s office denied a public records request for documents on which criminal cases it has received for possible prosecution from detectives at the Sonoma Developmental Center, the state’s largest facility for the mentally disabled. District attorneys in four other counties with institutions in their jurisdiction – Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and Tulare – did release records on developmental center cases.

Patients’ relatives, too, have struggled to learn what happened after their loved ones have been seriously injured or killed inside the walls of the developmental centers.

On Feb. 22, 2009, someone threw a towel over Danisha Smith’s head and tied it off with a cord around her throat. Deprived of oxygen, the 15-year-old Fairview Developmental Center patient’s brain swelled as Smith’s attacker wildly stabbed her in the chest with a pencil.

John Norris III, Smith’s uncle and closest relative, did not learn the details of his niece’s murder from the institution. Nor did he hear from the Office of Protective Services, the police force at Fairview that would investigate the crime.

Instead, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department called him to confirm the teenager’s identity. At the morgue, Norris said he saw “many, many scratches on her chest, sharp object scratches.” A coroner investigator told Smith an unofficial version of the event.

Norris said he called the Fairview police and left messages for detectives. He received no response. “They wouldn’t even speak with me directly,” he said.

Another Fairview patient, Latina Ford, now 19 years old, is charged with the murder. Ford pleaded not guilty, but was ruled by the court mentally incompetent to stand trial. The state is holding her at the Porterville Developmental Center in Tulare County.

Most of the court file is under seal, including the police report and autopsy findings.

The state Department of Developmental Services did not publicly announce that a patient was strangled to death at Fairview.

“As required by law the DDS does not provide any public information regarding deaths in an effort to protect the confidentiality of the resident,” Patricia Flannery, head of developmental centers’ operations, said in a written statement.

Smith’s murder has not been reported in a single news article or TV segment.

The sheriff’s department withheld Smith’s homicide from a log of Fairview patient deaths released to California Watch in response to a records request last year. The Orange County district attorney’s office did the same, removing the murder from a list of Fairview criminal cases before providing it to a reporter.

Matt Murphy, the prosecutor who filed the murder charge against Ford, confirmed the details of the assault on Smith in an interview. The victim’s death certificate lists anoxic encephalopathy, or loss of oxygen to the brain, as the cause of her death.

The coroner’s office denied a request for Smith’s autopsy report, citing the district attorney’s objection to its release.

CIR reporter Agustin Armendariz and intern Emily Hartley contributed to this report. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.

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