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Insane. Invisible. In danger: A special investigation into Florida's dangerous mental hospitals

Many nights, Tonya Cook made her rounds alone.

She walked the halls of one of Florida's most dangerous mental hospitals clutching her clipboard to her chest, trying not to think too much about the patients in her care.

All of them were men. Many were schizophrenic, violent. One had chopped up a diabetic amputee and scattered him in parts through the woods of Dixie County.

One night in 2012, she walked the ward again, a single orderly watching over 27 men. Her nearest co-workers were upstairs, out of sight. They didn't see what a security camera captured — a patient holding a radio antennae fashioned to a jagged point.

He calmly approached Cook as she sat looking over her notes. Then he swung.

Eyebrow.

Lip.

Temple.

Eye socket.

As blood puddled on the floor, only the other mental patients at North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center were close enough to help.

Florida's state-funded mental hospitals are supposed to be safe places to house and treat people who are a danger to themselves or others.

But years of neglect and $100 million in budget cuts have turned them into treacherous warehouses where violence is out of control and patients can't get the care they need.

Since 2009, violent attacks at the state's six largest hospitals have doubled. Nearly 1,000 patients ordered to the hospitals for close supervision managed to injure themselves or someone else.

For years, the state Legislature, the governor's office and the agencies that oversee Florida's mental hospitals ignored the chaos and continued cutting. Then state regulators hid the full extent of violence and neglect from the public.

 

VIDEO: Watch the trailer video.

 

The Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune spent more than a year chronicling life in these institutions, interviewing patients and their families and examining thousands of pages of government records. Using police and hospital reports from across the state, reporters pieced together the first comprehensive list of injuries and violent attacks inside Florida's mental institutions. The newspapers found:

• Over the past five years, at least 15 people died after they injured themselves or were attacked by other patients. One man with a history of suicide attempts jumped off the eighth floor of a parking garage. Another was stomped to death because no one separated him from rivals even though they had beaten him up the night before.

• Staffing shortages are so acute that violent patients wander the halls unsupervised. Employees are left alone to oversee 15 or more mentally ill men. Sometimes they carry no radio to call for help, and the nearest guard is in another building or on another floor.

• Even when patients are placed under special watch, they have been able to swallow batteries and razor blades or hoard weapons to use on other patients. At a hospital in Florida City, a patient needed nothing more than a wad of paper to break out of his locked room and stab his neighbor 10 times. As the man bled on the floor, a staff member, unaware of what had happened, helped the attacker wash his bloody clothes.

• The state has no minimum staffing requirements. And there are virtually no repercussions for administrators, even when someone dies. State regulators have fined the hospitals a total of $2,500 in the past five years. One hospital paid $1,000 after a patient escaped and was run over by a truck.

• At least three people died because hospital workers took too long to call 911. Some employees say they felt pressure not to call paramedics because of the expense. Others say they were required to track down a supervisor first, leading to delays.

Click here to go the full story.

 

Click here to see all the parts of the investigation.

 

Insane. Invisible. In danger: A special investigation into Florida's dangerous mental hospitals 10/30/15 [Last modified: Friday, January 8, 2016 4:21pm]
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© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

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