THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Complaint tally grows at Carney psych unit

Firings followed abuse reports

By Liz Kowalczyk
Globe Staff / June 22, 2011

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The firing of 29 nurses and mental health counselors at Carney Hospital last month followed five complaints of abuse or neglect on the adolescent psychiatry unit — not one as initially disclosed by the hospital — according to state officials.

State child protection investigators concluded that four of the complaints were valid, based on interviews and other information. In one case, a mental health counselor allegedly assaulted a 16-year-old female patient. In another, a counselor reportedly assaulted a 15-year-old male patient. One of those incidents involved a sexual assault, Carney officials said.

A third validated complaint, of neglect, involved an apparent relationship between two patients — a 15-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl — indicating a lack of proper supervision on the unit.

The Department of Mental Health also investigated the three cases and found that staff “acted in a manner that was dangerous, illegal, and inhumane,’’ according to the agency’s letters describing the findings, which were obtained by the Globe through a freedom of in formation request.

The mental health agency has not finished investigating the fourth validated case, said Jennifer Kritz, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Bill Walczak, the hospital president, declined to provide details on the cases yesterday, but underscored his decision to fire the entire staff of the unit on May 26. He based his decision on an investigation by former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and his law firm, which Walczak hired. The firm found that the 14-bed locked unit for extremely troubled teens was not functioning properly and advised him to hire new staff.

“The Harshbarger report indicated it wasn’t a safe situation,’’ Walczak said.

During interviews last month, Walczak confirmed the sexual assault when asked about it by the Globe, but he did not reveal the four other complaints. He said he did not discuss them because they were “allegations, they weren’t substantiated, they were being investigated at the time.’’

But the revelation about the additional cases helps explain why Walczak fired 13 nurses and 16 mental health counselors. “When these were reported to me in rapid succession, it required a much deeper look at what was going on in the unit,’’ he said. “I had to move on this.’’

In a June 7 letter from the Massachusetts Nurses Association to Carney nurses, union officials said Walczak also fired two top managers, the vice president of patient care services and the nurse manager of psychiatry.

Walczak would not comment in detail on those firings yesterday. “The initial reports that we got back on what was happening in the unit indicated really serious management issues, and I decided to terminate management at the hospital,’’ he said.

Marylou Sudders, a former state mental health commissioner and current president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, applauded Walczak’s decision. She said “it’s important not to discipline just the lower-level workers but to hold management accountable.’’

The letter from union officials said Carney Hospital fired the staff nurses for “conduct at work.’’ It said the nurses “adamantly deny any allegations of wrongdoing’’ and that the union has filed grievances challenging the terminations.

The letter goes on to say that the nurses tried to make a “unit that was physically rundown as homelike as possible for the kids,’’ including buying food, games, and supplies, covering holes in the walls with paper, and “begging for the funding to remodel. For years the nurses expressed their concerns about the unsafe/unsatisfactory environment and the lack of management leadership. . For the most part the nurses were ignored,’’ the letter said.

The SEIU, which represents mental health counselors at the hospital, has filed grievances on behalf of the counselors who were fired.

Neither union would comment further about the conditions on the unit or the firings.

Walczak, who became president of Carney in February, said he could not comment on how the hospital handled issues prior to his arrival.

State officials declined to be interviewed. But Kritz e-mailed a statement praising Carney’s handling of the abuse and neglect incidents.

“Carney took each reported incident very seriously,’’ she said. “They cooperated fully with all licensing investigations and took immediate and decisive action to assure patient safety by suspending employees who were alleged to be involved in misconduct, and worked closely with DMH on long-term corrective action. DMH supported Carney’s decision to replace the entire staff on its adolescent unit, and we continue to work with the hospital to assure quality care and patient safety during this transition.’’

Walczak said he has hired new staff to work on the unit, which now has six patients. “I feel totally confident in that unit right now. The children are very safe and getting excellent care,’’ he said.

Steward Health Care, which bought Carney and five other Catholic hospitals in the Caritas Christi network last year, has given the hospital $1.5 million to renovate the unit as a result of the investigation, which Walczak said will make it safer and improve care.

The hospital has submitted renovation plans to the Department of Public Health for approval, he said.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.

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