Former Bay Pines nurse accused of sexual battery on VA mental health patient

ST. PETERSBURG — A 48-year-old former nurse at Bay Pines VA Medical Center was arrested Tuesday, accused of sexually battery on a male patient he was supposed to be caring for in the mental health ward.

Jeffrey Harris, of 3952 Fifth Ave. S, was arrested on a charge of sexual battery by a criminal investigator from the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Authorities said Harris admitted that he assaulted other people as well, though no other charges have been filed.

The former employee also goes by Jefferson Harris. He was a licensed practical nurse at the VA campus, but is no longer employed there, said Bay Pines spokeswoman Faith Belcher.

The alleged assault took place in December, but it's unclear when officials became aware of the allegations, when Harris' employment ended and whether he resigned or was fired.

Harris was barred from contact with patients when the allegations were made, Belcher said, and never returned to work. She said employee privacy regulations barred her from releasing more information about him.

But after the allegations surfaced, Belcher said, Bay Pines took additional measures to protect patients.

"Patient safety and security are paramount at Bay Pines VA," Belcher wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "We take all allegations seriously and investigate them thoroughly."

The patient who Harris is accused of assaulting wasn't identified by authorities because of the nature of the allegation.

According to an arrest report, the incident took place in the mental health unit on the evening of Dec. 7, 2010.

Harris is accused of committing sexual acts on the man three times, according to the report: in the shower, the patient's room and bathroom.

The man said he told Harris he was "not comfortable" with the actions, but also said that he was on medication at the time that "prevented him from making sound decisions," the report states.

That medication, and Harris' size — the report listed him as 5-feet-11, 180-pounds — led the man to believe, he told the investigator, that he "could not stop Harris from assaulting him."

It wasn't disclosed when the man came forward. But prosecutors were reviewing the case when Harris admitted assaulting the patient during a May 5 interview with an investigator, the report states.

Harris said he "initiated sexual contact," the report said, and knew the victim was on medication. Harris also said that "he could not control himself," and that "he was going through a stressful time in life," according to the report. He provided a written confession, authorities said.

The case was resubmitted to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office on Monday. Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said his office decided there was enough evidence to arrest Harris.

Harris, the report said, also revealed that he had "sexually assaulted more than one person." But it was unclear if he said those acts occurred at Bay Pines, if they were substantiated or what actions were taken by authorities.

Bay Pines referred those questions to prosecutors. Davidson said his office could not comment on that aspect of the case during the ongoing investigation.

As a result of this incident, Belcher said, Bay Pines started requiring two staff members be present when patients in the mental health unit shower.

Other security measures already in place, she said, included: placing female patients near nurses' stations so nurses could keep better tabs on them; using key cards to restrict room access to the residential patients staying there; and giving new patients security training.

Security cameras and emergency call boxes are scattered all over the 300-acre campus, Belcher said, and staffers are trained to prevent patient abuse and sexual harassment. Under the medical center's code of conduct, Belcher added, any staffer who intentionally harms a patient can be disciplined or fired.

Harris was released late Tuesday afternoon from the Pinellas County jail after posting $10,000 bail. He could not be reached for comment.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Former Bay Pines nurse accused of sexual battery on VA mental health patient 06/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 12:17am]

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