Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Caregivers at a Florida center for the brain-injured beat patients, goaded them to fight each other and fondle female employees and in one instance laughed at complaints of mistreatment, according to investigative reports released under a court order to Bloomberg News.
The center, the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation, is fighting a state directive that it move about 50 patients to other facilities. That order followed a Bloomberg story revealing a history of violence at the center southeast of Tampa. At least five patients have died from alleged abuse or neglect there since 1998, two in the last two years.
The newly released records summarize 15 probes conducted by the Florida Department of Children and Families since 2008, including 12 that have never been disclosed before. Leon County Circuit Court Judge Kevin J. Carroll ordered the state to provide the reports, with the names of victims blacked out, after Bloomberg petitioned the court, arguing there was a compelling public interest.
The Wauchula-based facility, known as FINR, draws patients from across the U.S. and abroad and is said by competitors to be the largest such rehabilitation center in the country. It often finds customers among the relatively few brain injured with legal settlements or insurance payments that enable them to pay premium prices. FINR charges some of them $300,000 a year.
In all of the 15 cases summarized in the reports -- involving 17 patients and 20 staff members -- the allegations were classified by investigators as verified, meaning they were supported by a “preponderance of credible evidence.”
Until now, the state had released only a summary of complaints, indicating there have been 526 allegations of abuse and neglect since 2005. Of those, 37 were deemed verified. Another 117 fell into a category defined by state regulations as when “there is credible evidence that does not meet the standard of preponderance.” The rest are still being investigated or involved cases where the agency discovered no evidence of abuse.
Joe Brennick, FINR’s owner and chief executive officer, declined to comment on individual cases. In an e-mailed statement, Brennick said the center “has consistently acted in the best interest of its patients, and has one of the toughest self-reporting policies in place for a facility of its kind.”
“It is important to understand that FINR serves one of the most difficult populations of patients in the country,” he said, “and that these patients often act out aggressively and are extremely difficult to manage. This is not to absolve wrongdoing by staff members, but is a fact that is often overlooked in media reports.”
NeuroRestorative, a company that operates facilities in Florida under the same type of license as FINR, didn’t have a single verified abuse complaint during the same time period as the 526 were lodged against FINR. NeuroRestorative has about half the number of beds as FINR, which has 196.
Among the cases in the recently released records is one from August 2008, when an investigator verified 10 instances of abuse against three autistic patients by three FINR employees. In one incident, as two staffers watched and did nothing, a third named Tilmon Strickland allegedly punched an autistic patient in the face, drawing blood, according to the report.
Staff members attempted to cover up the incident by writing an internal report that blamed the patient’s injuries on a peer, according to an allegation in the state report.
Strickland and another employee, Troy Gordon, had “a history of trying to get residents to fight one another” and would “agitate” them and “instigate aggressive behavior,” according to a summary of allegations against them.
The two staff members encouraged a patient to hit other residents, the report stated. In addition, Strickland and Gordon repeatedly told a patient to inappropriately touch and kiss a female employee, according to the report. The victims were described in the report as “easy targets.”
The investigator wrote that “the staff at this facility has been investigated several times for injury and inadequate supervision of the residents.” While the workers in this case were fired, according to the report, “the facility has other staff who may exhibit similar behavior with residents.”
Stickland, Gordon and the other now-former FINR employees mentioned in the reports couldn’t be reached for comment.
In June 2010, a patient who banged his head into a wall after becoming upset was restrained with a technique called BARR, for Brief Assisted Required Relaxation. Several patients told Bloomberg they were beaten during this procedure, which is referred to by residents as a “take down.”
Done properly, patients hurting themselves or others are supposed to be gently lowered onto a blue mat and restrained for a short period of time until they’re calm.
In this case, FINR employee Taiwan Blandin allegedly attacked the patient, Demarcus Denton, “for no reason” during a BARR restraint. Blandin stood over Denton and punched him in the head 10 times before dropping his knee on him several times, according to a police report filed after officers interviewed staff members who said they witnessed the incident. Denton, who suffered a brain injury as a child, was taken to the hospital with a cut to his ear and abrasions on his face.
Blandin was arrested and pleaded no contest to a battery charge, receiving a sentence of a year of probation, according to the state attorney’s office.
In a September 2009 case, FINR employee Thelinor Jena allegedly punched a patient who had scratched him earlier in the day during a BARR procedure, according to the records. Jena pleaded no contest to battery and was placed on probation for a year and ordered to attend an anger management class, according to the state attorney’s office.
Another of the investigative reports alleged that in April 2010, employee Kristopher Rossman was recorded on a surveillance camera “taking down” a patient “for nothing.” Rossman allegedly moved the patient off-camera, to his bedroom, where the patient emerged with bruises, according to the report.
A patient was quoted in a police report as saying he heard sounds of a beating in the bedroom, including “yelling and screaming and banging around.” Police said the 40-year-old brain-injured man had a large bruise on his back with the shape of a handprint in the middle of it. After the incident, Rossman allegedly told another employee, “this is how we do it in this cabin,” according to the police report.
A video camera caught Rossman and another employee “laughing with each other directly after the incident,” according to the police report.
Rossman was charged with abuse of a disabled person. The charge was later dropped by the state attorney’s office after it determined the allegation couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, a spokesman for the office said.
The July 24 Bloomberg story reported on the cases of three other staffers who were arrested, including LaKevin Johnson and Landrey Johnson, charged in September 2011 with abusing Danny Silva, an autistic patient. Video of the incident shows the two men sitting on either side of the smaller victim on a sofa as they punch, elbow and slap him at least 30 times.
“It appeared they were hitting him for the simple reason that they could,” a state investigator concluded.
They were each sentenced to a year of probation last month on a charge of battery, according to the state attorney’s office. The lawyer for the two men, Karen Meeks, didn’t respond to telephone calls.
Silva’s father praised FINR in a letter, posted on a company website, that said the center had taken “every possible step for corrective action” and that his son was receiving “the proper care he deserves.”
In the other case, employee McKinley Scott was videotaped in December 2011 pulling an autistic patient from his seat and throwing him to the ground. Scott was charged with abusing the patient. A Hardee County jury found him not guilty in October. Scott couldn’t be reached for comment.
The newly released investigative files include cases where employees were faulted for failing to properly watch patients, allowing some to hurt themselves.
In October 2008, a woman with a history of swallowing objects was able to consume a pen when the staff person assigned to watch her fell asleep during her shift, according to the files. In December 2010, another patient with a similar history swallowed a piece of a CD, a report said.
Two employees were assigned to watch that patient and stay within a certain distance at all times to prevent her from ingesting foreign objects; instead, one worker was around the corner talking on the telephone and the other was in the hallway texting, according to the report.
In that case, the patient alleged she was routinely beaten by staff. While the investigator was unable to verify that, the report noted the patient had a black eye, a mark on her chin, bruises on her knee and a brush burn on her buttocks.
The investigator speculated the injuries could have been the result of staff efforts to restrain the woman, who has behavioral issues. Still, the investigator wrote she had “concerns due to the nature of and amount of injuries; some of the explanations do not seem plausible.”
The investigator also said she witnessed two staffers laugh at the alleged victim in the presence of a company official “who said nothing/did nothing to stop the staff members.”
In a June 2012 case, a patient alleged a staff member grabbed him by the genitals and squeezed hard. While the investigator was unable to substantiate the complaint of physical abuse, the FINR employee did admit to charging the patient $5 every time he wanted to take a smoking break, according to the investigative report.
FINR has rarely been punished by regulators in Florida, where there has been confusion among agencies regarding which has oversight. It’s been fined once since 2005, paying a penalty of $4,218.75 for failure to file a timely renewal application. State officials have said they’re working more closely together. Three state agencies staged an unannounced inspection in August.
The center responded to heightened regulatory scrutiny by hiring 10 lobbyists. The company has created a Web site, Twitter feed and Facebook page, all under the heading Support FINR, and produced video testimonials from satisfied patients.
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