Canyon County

Treatment center staff trained peers to ‘not feel sorry’ for clients, manager wrote

Southwest Idaho Treatment Center is just north of Interstate 84 in Nampa.
Southwest Idaho Treatment Center is just north of Interstate 84 in Nampa.

Police records and internal communications obtained by the Statesman shed new light on what prompted complaints of abuse and neglect last summer at the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa.

Internal emails between SWITC officials suggest they were aware of a pervasive problem with staff behavior at SWITC, the state-run facility for Idahoans with severe developmental, behavioral and psychiatric disorders.

In one email, a manager raised alarm about employees “getting close to the line of abuse.” Some workers were “doing well” with residents, the manager said, but it appeared they were forced to wait until other employees weren’t looking to treat their patients “kindly.”

And with new tort claims filed in recent months, the state faces more possible lawsuits from former SWITC employees and families of dead or injured SWITC residents. The former employees include a past administrator, who says she was fired after trying to fix problems at the facility.

The new claims are in addition to a lawsuit that was filed in August by the mother of Moses Rodriguez, a 24-year-old man who died in 2015 while living at SWITC.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which operates the center, said Tuesday that it does not comment on tort claims.

State law requires people to file a notice of a tort claim before they can sue the government. That gives the government a chance to settle the claims before they go to court.

SWITC is a large campus in Nampa with about 25 residents. The center provides assessment, training and treatment to people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. The goal is to help them transition into living in their communities.

Some of the residents have a long and complex list of disorders. Some are non-verbal. They can be aggressive against employees and each other.

A deputy administrator told lawmakers last winter that up to 40 percent of the center’s staff members file injury claims every year, and turnover at SWITC is double the rate across other Health and Welfare job sites.

Police investigations

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare last summer opened an internal investigation into complaints of psychological and physical abuse of seven adult residents at SWITC. It announced the investigation in a news release: “We wanted to be the first to put out there that this is happening because we want to be transparent, and we don’t want anybody to think we think this is OK. It’s not,” department spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr told the Statesman at the time.

Six employees were initially put on paid leave, then resigned or were fired after the department found physical and psychological abuse that included bullying and insulting residents.

The department has denied the Statesman’s public record requests for any documents or reports that resulted from its investigation. It cited exemptions for personnel records; records of hospital, medical and mental health care; the federal patient privacy law; attorney-client privilege; and investigative records “pursuant to its statutory responsibilities dealing with the protection of children, the rehabilitation of youth, adoptions and the commitment of mentally ill persons.”

However, the Nampa Police Department also investigated complaints of abuse last summer and passed on its findings to the Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office. The Statesman obtained documents from some of those investigations through a public record request. Prosecutors decided not to charge SWITC employees in the three incidents for which records were available.

‘Lack of communication’

Police on June 22 received a complaint from an adult protection worker about abuse and neglect of a vulnerable adult at SWITC that had happened in early May. The area’s adult protection agency found that the male resident wasn’t given appropriate medical care for an open wound on his arm, which got infected. The man had to be hospitalized for six days to treat his wound and a MRSA infection.

Police talked to SWITC’s human resources director in July and were told that the employee involved had been put on administrative leave. State records show she is still employed as a licensed practical nurse as of Jan. 1.

SWITC had done its own review of the patient’s care, concluding on June 13 that there was neglect that “likely was not intentional” but instead “due to lack of communication,” and that the man didn’t get medical attention or soap-and-water cleanings of his wound for five days.

‘I know it looked bad’

Police responded on June 26 to a call about a battery at SWITC. When they arrived, a deputy attorney general was in the lobby wanting to talk with an officer about abuse of an elderly or vulnerable person.

The attorney said she’d received a report from SWITC that on June 7, an employee pushed a resident down and hurt his back. The resident was later found to have a broken tailbone. That employee was put on leave pending an investigation.

The employee met with police in August, at which point he said he’d been on administrative leave for two months.

He told police that he’d been called in to help with a new resident, who then “had a huge meltdown.” The next day, the resident “started wigging out” when he was about to be taken to an eye appointment.

The employee said he got into a defensive stance. The resident started to back up into his room, which was messy, then “he slipped on his clothes. ... I figured he must have hit the corner of his bed.” The employee also told police that he “tried to catch him.”

The employee said he’s accustomed to working with higher-functioning residents who are “most devious on how to hurt you,” and that some residents bite him.

“When I watched the video, I know it looked bad. I know it looked aggressive. But honestly that has been successful for me for nine years. I hold my ground and I wait until they come to their senses,” he told police.

He added that he had been placed on administrative leave for incidents before and “have always been cleared.”

State payroll records say he is still employed as a psychiatric technician.

Resident needed stitches

Police received a call on July 7 from the current SWITC administrator, Jamie Newton, reporting a battery two days earlier by a staff member against a resident.

Police records say the employee was filmed on security video pushing the resident against a door frame, which cut the man’s face, requiring him to get stitches at the hospital. The previous month, an internal SWITC email mentioned a need to talk with the employee about his “attitude and interaction style and how he is training others so hopefully there is an improvement with him.”

The documents provided to the Statesman don’t give any context for the incident. It appears police did later interview the employee, but no written report of that interview was provided.

The employee was put on administrative leave, police records said. State payroll records show he is still employed as a psychiatric technician as of Jan. 1.

‘Getting close to the line of abuse’

Internal emails sent by administrative staff in early June also suggest a troubling culture had developed among SWITC’s front-line workforce.

One email talks about “staff who are brusque and verbally rather forceful” with some of the residents.

“The experienced staff are telling the newer staff to act this way and ‘not feel sorry’ for clients,” an email from a manager said. “The things that I have seen are getting close to the line of abuse. And nobody wants a client to be abused, nor to have a floor work short because staff are off being investigated.”

The manager said she chose to pull some employees into her office to talk to them about their conduct — to give them “training and assistance” instead of “just writing staff up” for a problem.

“There are a handful of staff that are doing well with the clients, and treating them kindly, but it looks like they are having to do this when the other staff aren’t looking,” the manager said. “Those staff should be recognized as the cultural leaders of the unit instead of having to hide.”

Neither the manager nor Newton responded to messages from the Statesman Wednesday.

Resident claims abuse

The investigation details add to other claims of abuse and dysfunction in a series of tort claims filed throughout 2017.

Michael McNamar was living at SWITC in June 2017, when his guardian got a call from SWITC with “a vague report that Michael had hurt his head,” according to a tort claim filed in his name on Nov. 21.

McNamar later reported that he was assaulted two times, by two separate SWITC employees, the claim says. He said he had been shoved into his room, pushed into a dresser and knocked to the floor, hit in the eye and tripped, which resulted in him hitting his head on the floor and losing consciousness.

“Subsequent reports indicate Michael’s head was repeatedly slammed into the ground,” the claim says. “On another occasion, he was physically dragged into his room, injuring his knee. On other occasions, Michael has been subjected to emotional and physical abuse.”

The claim says McNamar has physical, behavioral and psychological problems stemming from his treatment. It seeks damages of more than $30,000.

Former head claims whistleblower retaliation

The person who ran SWITC before July 2016 — and before the other incidents this article describes — also has filed a tort claim against the state, alleging she was fired after trying to fix problems at the facility.

The tort claim filed in January 2017 on behalf of Dayna Wilhite-Grow and her husband accuses Health and Welfare of retaliation, wrongful firing under the Idaho Whistleblower Act and other claims such as a hostile work environment.

She says her firing followed, among other things:

▪  Her voicing concerns about SWITC personnel — concerns “which included waste and/or violations of federal and state law, rules and/or regulations.”

▪  Reporting the “results of allegations of abuse and neglect of SWITC residential clients, and the failure of SWITC personnel and management to follow appropriate policies and procedures.”

▪  Taking actions to “protect the physical health” of SWITC residents.

Wilhite-Grow had worked for the department since 2002 and had an “exemplary” employee record, she said in the tort claim.

The claim seeks damages of $1 million. The state never responded to deny the tort claim, Wilhite-Grow’s attorney said. She has not yet filed a lawsuit.

Resident who died

Drew Rinehart had been living with his mother and grandmother in Boise until he was put into the custody of the state and sent to live at SWITC, according to a tort claim filed by his estate. The claim seeks damages of more than $1 million.

Rinehart, 27, was found dead in his bed around 11 a.m. on Aug. 20. His hands and feet were loosely bound by socks that were tied into loops, and his face was against his pillow, which suffocated him. A county coroner’s report concluded that Rinehart had been left alone for several hours — despite staff logs that claimed to have followed orders to check on him every 30 minutes. The coroner also concluded Rinehart had tied the socks himself.

The tort claim filed Nov. 21 calls the details surrounding his death “inconsistent and suspicious.”

Two weeks before he died, Rinehart told someone that SWITC staff had restrained him by “twisting his arm behind his back and shoving him into the wall,” the tort claim says. “Mr. Rinehart also reported several incidences of abuse by other SWITC residents, which resulted in him being moved to the female unit for protection.”

Despite that move, Rinehart continued to be attacked due to insufficent staff and supervision, the claim says.

Former employee sues

Another former employee, Tricia Kutz, filed a tort claim in October that accuses the state of retaliatory firing and age discrimination. Kutz was fired from SWITC in April 2017.

Kutz says in the tort claim that Health and Welfare and SWITC “failed to adequately train and/or supervise numerous employees working at SWITC, including supervisors and the administrator in charge of the facility.” She sought $500,000 to settle the claim, which was still open and hadn’t been settled as of Tuesday.

Kutz also sued the state, Health and Welfare and its director in Ada County 4th District Court, seeking more than $10,000 in damages. According to the lawsuit, she worked for Health and Welfare from October 2013 to April 2017 as a client services manager and took on the duties of another position for 18 months.

Among other accusations, Kutz says she reported “several violations of the abuse/neglect policy” to SWITC’s current administrator, who “did not follow through on those ... reports.” She says she also reported “time clock abuse/fraud and/or theft.”

Kutz says she was put on administrative leave, then fired, for not reporting a possible verbal abuse incident that happened while she was on vacation. “At least two individuals who witnessed the incident and did not report the incident per policy were not disciplined in any manner,” the lawsuit says.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @audreydutton

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