Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Rehab center in Hardee County accused of widespread patient abuse

Soon after Peter Price arrived at the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation in Hardee County to get treatment for a brain injury, he pleaded for a rescue.

"Jess, they beat me up," Price told his sister, Jessica Alopaeus, in May 2009. "You have to get me out of here."

Staffers at the center held him down and punched him in the face and groin, according to Price, a 24-year-old who suffered a brain injury in a bicycle accident at age 8. When his sister's efforts to transfer him stalled, Price took desperate steps.

He swallowed five fish hooks and 22 AA batteries he had picked up during a patient outing at Walmart. After emergency surgery to remove the objects, he was allowed to transfer, he said.

Residents at the Florida Institute have been abused, neglected and confined, according to 20 current and former patients and their family members, criminal charges, civil complaints and advocates for the disabled.

These sources and more than 2,000 pages of court and medical records, police reports, state investigations and autopsies contain a history of violence and death at the institute known as FINR, located amid cattle ranches and citrus groves in Wauchula, 50 miles southeast of Tampa.

Patients' families or state agencies have alleged abuse or care lapses in at least five residents' deaths since 1998, two of them in the last 18 months. Three former employees face criminal charges of abusing FINR patients.

The complaints underscore the problems that 5.3 million brain-injured Americans have finding adequate care. Their numbers are growing, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as better emergency medicine and vehicle safety mean that fewer die from traffic accidents or other causes of traumatic brain injuries.

The long-term ills range from memory loss and physical handicaps to the inability to control violent anger or sexual aggression. Yet because insurance benefits for rehabilitation are scarce, less than half of those who need it receive it, according to the Brain Injury Association of America.

Operated for profit since 1992, FINR has become one of the largest brain-injury centers in the country, with 196 beds.

Those who have clashed with the company over the treatment of patients say its efforts to keep costs down and extend stays take priority over care.

"All people are to them is a monetary gain," said Jana Thorpe, a professional guardian who removed one of her wards from the company's care in 2008.

Florida's Department of Children and Families has received 477 allegations of abuse or neglect at FINR since 2005, including 36 that were verified by its investigations, according to the agency's records. The verified claims and others were referred to law enforcement, according to Erin Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the agency, who said she didn't know what became of the referrals.

FINR executives declined to comment and turned down a request to visit the facility. Owner Joseph Brennick said he "preferred to stay out of the news" before ending a short phone conversation and directing questions to a lawyer, who said he would not answer them.

Walter Dartland, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, has called on state and federal authorities to investigate FINR.

Hardee County prosecutors have charged two FINR staffers with abusing autistic patient Danny Silva, 21. Video of the alleged crime shows two large men punching, elbowing and slapping a smaller figure between them on a sofa at least 30 times.

Defendants LaKevin Johnson, 30, and Landrey Johnson, 39, of Fort Meade have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Their lawyer didn't return calls.

Another video shows a man identified as FINR employee McKinley Scott pushing autistic patient Gabriel Allen away from him on a couch, standing him up, kicking his legs out from under him and leaving him on the floor next to a blinking Christmas tree. Scott, 48, has pleaded not guilty to an abuse charge prosecutors brought in December. His lawyer didn't return calls.

Ex-residents of FINR said they were frequently "taken down" or knocked to the floor and restrained by staff, in a routine often accompanied by beatings.

"I was taken down at least once a week," said Janet Clark, who stayed at FINR from 2006 to 2007 after being injured in a car crash. Clark, 55, keeps a photo from those days: She is expressionless and sports a black eye that she said came from staffers.

Clark said she had behavioral issues while she was recovering, including times when she needed to be restrained, but not with the force or frequency that FINR used. She said she received no therapy there for her aggression though she was paying the company $310,000 a year from a personal injury settlement.

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