St. Louis mental health facility called unsafe

Thursday, August 21, 2008 | 4:40 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS - The Department of Justice has declared a St. Louis-area mental health center as unsafe, but state officials pledged Thursday to challenge the report's findings.

The department's civil rights division investigated the state-run Northwest Habilitation Center last summer, prompted by the deaths of two clients in 2005 and 2006.

The 23-page report, issued Aug. 12, said the suburban Overland facility for people with developmental disabilities and challenging behaviors "is not safe," and doesn't address safety issues in a timely fashion.

Among other things, investigators found that Northwest relies too heavily on restraints to control client behavior and that its strategies for reducing resident aggression and violence are "woefully deficient."

They said Northwest failed to meet generally accepted professional standards for developing strategies to reduce future harm. The report will be published on the Justice Department's Web site on Friday.

Department of Mental Health Director Keith Schafer released the report at a news conference here, calling it inaccurate, misleading and sensational.

"It does not accurately portray what's happening at Northwest," and the changes made at the facility over the last year, he said.

"These are incredibly difficult clients and we struggle every day to take care of them," he said.

Schafer said the state would file a formal challenge of many of the report's findings within the next 48 days. He said that would trigger a dialogue that ultimately would end up with "some kind of partnership" review of Northwest.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said the agency would not comment.

In November 2005, a client who was supposed to be under constant supervision died after swallowing a pen.

Another client died in March 2006, six days after he was scalded while being bathed by a worker at the center.

The state settled both those cases.

The investigation of Northwest was handled by a section within the Justice Department focused on the constitutional rights of people living in state-run institutions.

With on-site visits, interviews and document reviews, investigators looked at such things as living conditions, safety, staffing levels, and whether residents' care and treatment follows accepted practices in the field, such as providing care in the least restrictive setting.



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