State senators scrutinize violence in Florida's mental hospitals

Published Jan. 15, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — A top official in charge of Florida's mental hospitals acknowledged on Thursday that the institutions do not have enough staff or money to properly treat patients in their care. But the Department of Children and Families still has not come up with a plan to stem the chaos and violence inside six state-run institutions.

Following months of pressure from advocates and lawmakers, John Bryant, DCF's assistant secretary for substance abuse and mental health, was called before a Senate committee to address levels of violence uncovered during a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Asked whether the hospitals were adequately funded, Bryant said: "My immediate response is no."

Bryant acknowledged that the budget cuts and layoffs outlined in the Times/Herald-Tribune report have been "devastating." But he declined to say how much money or how many new staff members were needed to decrease violent attacks and other injuries, saying the issue needed more study.

"If you said give me a number… to fix this, I would be wrong," he said.

The Times/Herald-Tribune investigation — "Insane. Invisible. In danger." — revealed that the state has cut $100 million from its mental hospitals since 2009 and reduced staff by a third. That led to years of neglect of the hospitals, where doors literally were falling off hinges and rats were crawling on beds.

It also put patients and staff in danger. As patients spent more time unsupervised, violent attacks and other injuries doubled, leading to at least 15 deaths.

Reporters also found that many attacks were not being reported to state regulators. In some cases, details about patient deaths were sealed by DCF when employees made mistakes or delayed calling 911. Even parents have been denied access to investigative reports when their adult children were killed in state care.

In response to senators' questions, Bryant outlined the steps DCF has taken since the Times/Herald-Tribune stories were published.

The agency is conducting an audit to identify a number of issues, including whether the hospitals are reporting all violent incidents and whether the facilities need to be upgraded.

It has hired a consultant to review staffing levels and recommend the number of staff needed to safely operate each facility.

Bryant and his boss, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, are now personally reviewing every adverse incident report within 24 hours of an injury.

These efforts come in addition to a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott to spend $1.6 million adding more security cameras and equipping mental hospital staff with body alarms.

Still, some senators left the meeting unimpressed.

"You can't cure these problems with Band-Aids," said Sen. Charles Dean, R-Inverness. "This takes money. It takes a plan."

Several senators repeatedly pressed Bryant to outline how much additional money would be needed. Sen. Eleanor Sobel said the time to fix the budget is now — when the Legislature is in session.

But Bryant said any request for money would come after the audit and the consultant's report, both of which are expected next month.

Sobel, D-Hollywood, demanded "emergency measures" after reading the Times/Herald-Tribune report and said she felt DCF was dragging its feet with the meager changes announced on Thursday.

She urged Bryant to speed up the audit and pressed him on why DCF was not asking for more money and staff.

She asked him if he denied any of the details outlined in the Times/Herald-Tribune stories. He responded by saying he did not want to "pick a fight with a newspaper."

"It's just insane. That's the right word for it.," Sobel said. "This committee needs change rather quickly. Quality staffing, ratios, certifications are something that need to be looked at sooner rather than later."

DCF's failure to push for better funding seems counter to the sentiment in Tallahassee and across the country. Mental health issues are at the fore of this legislative session, with Congress examining a wide-ranging proposal to coordinate community facilities and a bill in the Florida Senate that would make it easier for police to get someone into a facility.

Florida ranks 49th in overall mental health spending, and lawmakers from both parties are trying to address what many see as a national embarrassment. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, called mental health the "topic of the year to work on."

"In the time I was home, everywhere I went, not one person said: 'Please give me a tax cut,' " Detert said. "Every single person talked about mental health. The business community. Restaurant owners. Providers. The newspaper. Seminars. Forums. All about mental health . . . It's very complex and you almost have to take the system apart, peel back the onion and then rebuild the system."

Anthony Cormier can be reached at