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Insane. Invisible. In danger: Hospital abuse shrouded in secrecy

Luis Santana died at a state-funded mental hospital at age 42.

Officials at the Department of Children and Families say they investigated his death in July 2011, but they won't say more.

They don't have to. Under Florida law, DCF can withhold information about people who die in its care, so long as the agency decides no employees were to blame.

So, state officials won't tell you that in the hours before Santana died, his caretakers at South Florida State Hospital suspected he was having a psychotic episode. They won't say they gave him five powerful drugs to calm him down, then left him alone in the bathtub.

They sealed reports that explain how hospital workers were supposed to check on him every 15 minutes — but didn't.

Even the names of the employees in charge of his care that night are secret.

It doesn't matter that Santana was left alone for 30 minutes in a tub that reached 118 degrees — so hot that his skin peeled off when workers tried to revive him — or that state records categorize the case as "confirmed neglect."

When the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune asked for a detailed investigative report on the death, DCF officials refused, citing Florida law.

In the name of patient privacy, the state has built a wall of secrecy around its mental hospitals, making it nearly impossible to track how they respond to abuse, neglect and carelessness by government workers.

Over the past year, as the Times/Herald-Tribune investigated injuries at six of the state's primary mental institutions, officials repeatedly denied reporters information.

In some cases, they used their power to classify fatalities as natural or accidental even though employee mistakes or neglect contributed to the deaths.

In others, they cited a law that experts say was designed to crack down on abusers, but now protects them.

When reporters asked for the names of hospital employees accused of abuse, state officials refused. They said Florida Statute 415.107 — a law to protect the identity of victims and people who report abuse — also covers the names of abusers.

Like everyone else, mental patients have a legal right to keep their medical records private.

But hospitals also use those privacy laws to make it harder to get information about unscrupulous or inept employees. Even parents can be denied information when their adult child is injured or killed in the state's care.

Rachelle McNair has spent 15 months trying to find out what happened to her son, Tuarus.

On June 12, 2014, another mental patient at Treasure Coast Forensic Treatment Center punched him repeatedly in the head during a fight.

Staff at the state-funded mental hospital near Lake Okeechobee gave him a shot of the anti-psychotic Thorazine and led him to his room.

The next time anyone checked on him, the 27-year-old was lying dead on the floor.

An autopsy showed that Tuarus's brain was swollen. He also had 10 times the normal amount of Thorazine in his system — enough to stop a man's heart.

But Medical Examiner Dr. Roger Mittleman ruled the death natural, blaming it on a rare heart malfunction that usually strikes drug abusers or top athletes. As a result, DCF closed the case and sealed its documents, even to Tuarus's mother.

Rachelle McNair may never know how much Thorazine her son was given, or whether the state checked to see if someone gave him too much.

"I just want someone to tell me what happened to my baby," she said.

On a Wednesday last March, McNair called Treasure Coast officials and arranged to pick up her son's medical files. When she arrived with a reporter, she was met by two security guards and the hospital's risk manager, Enza Abbate.

"You'll be getting a letter from our corporate office," Abbate said. "This conversation is over."

They ordered her to leave. She never got a letter or any records from Correct Care Solutions, the company that Florida pays to run Treasure Coast.

"My son is dead and no one will tell me what happened," McNair said. "The people responsible for him don't have to tell you a damn thing. It's sick."

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Click here to see all the parts of the investigation.

 

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Insane. Invisible. In danger: Hospital abuse shrouded in secrecy 11/02/15 [Last modified: Monday, November 2, 2015 4:30pm]
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