Horror Stories From
Virginia Mental Hospitals
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A patient at a Virginia state-run mental hospital lay flat on her back, bound hand and foot in heavy leather restraints, for hundreds of hours until she died.
At another Virginia psychiatric hospital, a patient died after the hospital failed to treat her despite her complaints and warnings from family that she was dying.
The deaths have left Virginia's $700-million mental-health system scrambling to restore public trust amid scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department, the news media, and harsh criticism by patient-advocacy groups.
The state cabinet secretary responsible for the mental-health system promised last month to raise confidence in the system and improve patients' rights protection. "Human rights is a very critical issue. We don't want the feds continuing to come into Virginia and tell us how to run our facilities," Claude Allen said.
The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating Virginia's mental hospitals since 1990 for what it says is inadequate patient care that has led to dangerous, sometimes life-threatening situations.
Lawsuits were settled last summer in cases involving Eastern State Hospital, Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute and Northern Virginia Training Center, which cares for the mentally retarded.
Laurie Flynn of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill said no state has more federal mental-health investigations as Virginia. "It's a remarkable sign of the relatively poor quality," she said.
Gloria Huntley, a patient at Central State Hospital, died in June 1996 after lying in restraints for 300 hours, including two stretches of nearly 110 hours straight, as punishment for outbursts against staff. A memo written a year earlier by her former doctor warned restraints could kill Huntley because she suffered from asthma and epilepsy.
The Justice Department sharply rebuked the Petersburg hospital in July 1997, accusing it of failing to protect the rights of Huntley, 31, and other patients by subjecting them to abuse, inadequate care and even death. The state mental-health commissioner resigned two months later.
The hospital chief was transferred and Virginia is now spending millions of dollars to fix problems. The amount of time it held patients in seclusion and restraints decreased from 1,100 hours a month in July 1996, to fewer than 200 hours in December 1997, said a report the hospital filed with a state patients' rights agency.
The hospital also changed its former policy allowing restraints to be used as punishment. Now, they're used only for patients who are a danger to themselves or others.
At Western State Hospital in Staunton, patient records show nothing was done for Maura Patten between July 3, 1997, when her sister told the hospital Patten feared she was dying, and July 7, when she was found dead in her bed. A wheezing Patten, 41, called her family and said she was not allowed to carry her inhaler, even though she had nearly died from respiratory failure three years earlier.
At the same hospital, Carl McCloskey claimed his son, John McCloskey, 19, was sodomized with a broom-like handle so savagely by staff his bowel was torn and his liver punctured. The teenager became violently ill at the mental hospital and lapsed into a coma, dying 14 months later. Western State Hospital has strongly denied the charges.
The Justice Department is now considering whether to investigate the hospital, said spokeswoman Lee Douglass.
Virginia treats 2,200 patients with severe mental illness at nine psychiatric hospitals. Eastern State, Central State and Western State house more than one-half of them.

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