HELENA — On Jan. 28, a 19-year-old developmentally disabled man reported being sexually abused in the secure unit at the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder.

The Montana Department of Justice issued an investigative report Feb. 3, verifying the allegation and another of neglect against two staff members, who took a break and left the resident unsupervised with an older male resident with a history of sexual aggression.

It was not the first alleged incident of sexual abuse or neglect at the MDC, and concerns remain it may not be the last.

The future of the MDC has been in limbo for many years, but there's a strong chance the Montana Legislature will seal its fate in the coming days.

Since the 2015 legislative session began, Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, has pushed to close the MDC, the only state residential facility for the developmentally disabled. Caferro sponsors Senate Bill 411, which proposes to shut down the facility by June 2017, sending most of the 50 residents to community-based programs, but possibly allowing the secure unit to remain open and treat no more than 12 residents.

On Monday, the House endorsed the third reading of SB411 to close the MDC. Legislators voted 60-40. The bill was sent back to the Senate with House amendments. It is scheduled for its second reading Wednesday.

During the last few months, Caferro has been busy at the Capitol informing legislators of substantiated abuse and neglect of residents at the facility.

She has introduced DOJ reports substantiating allegations of staff ignoring residents sleeping in bed with urine-soaked blankets, screaming and swearing at residents, throwing residents into walls and on the ground, and backhanding them in the genitals. In investigative reports dated from January to April 2013, the DOJ substantiated eight staff-on-resident allegations and 11 resident-on-resident allegations of abuse and neglect. The DOJ received 159 allegations of resident abuse in 2014, of which 55 were substantiated, including the sexual abuse of the 19-year-old male resident.

Christine Wiley told legislators April 8 her son had been preyed on since arriving at the MDC in April 2014. She thought he would be safe at the facility, but she was eventually told on three separate occasions that her son was attacked by other residents and once that he ran away from the center after a dispute with a staff member. And then her son claimed he was sexually abused.

While the MDC’s Event Management Committee agreed the staff members were neglectful, they denied that sexual abuse ever occurred. “The video evidence clearly indicates that both clients appear to be enjoying the activity,” wrote the committee in a report signed by Gene Haire, administrator at the MDC, on Feb. 3.

The statement was ill-received. The MDC has showed an “appalling ignorance of the dynamics involves in sexual exploitation and abuse,” wrote Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, the executive director of Disability Rights Montana, in a letter to Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Richard Opper, on Feb. 19. She requested Opper remove Haire and managerial staff for their “ignorance of the complicated dynamics of sexual abuse,” she wrote.

Wiley was infuriated to learn the MDC supervisors thought her son “enjoyed” the sexual abuse. The committee’s statement cemented her belief that Caferro’s bill was the best tool to close the MDC and give her son and all other clients a safe, dignified life, she said.

Isolated incidents?

Staff at the MDC have expressed disgust over the statement and over substantiated cases of abuse and neglect, but they do not think the words of one committee or the acts of several staff members define who they are as professionals. Some families of residents have come to their defense, praising the facility.

Gail Beckham, of Colstrip, told legislators April 8 her granddaughter was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome and bipolar disease and spent time at numerous group homes, but none met her needs. Then she stayed at the MDC, where staff members helped her for more than one year to get her severe anxiety under control. At 19, she now lives at a group home, working her first job and cashing employment checks into her first bank account.

“We should not be cutting services provided at Montana Developmental Center, we should be increasing them,” Beckham said.

Standing beside her, Bob Charette, of Billings, told reporters his son was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome — the biological parents died of alcoholism. His son is now 36, having spent time in group homes and 15 years at the MDC.

“He has been unsafe everywhere except at the MDC. He is safe at the MDC,” Charette said. “MDC staff are professional, keep me informed, answer my questions. They care about him. If he left MDC and was placed willy nilly, he’d do something that would land him in prison. He would be a victim again. He would not survive.”

Verified instances of abuse and neglect have spurred legislators to debate how the state cares for the developmentally disabled. Caferro argues that most residents at MDC can be taken care of in group homes, but opponents question the cost.

'Unacceptable' risk of harm

The MDC is operated by the DPHHS, which ordered a cease of admissions to the secure unit March 23 due to high volumes of abuse and neglect reports.

“The administrator of the (MDC) has been unable to assure a safe environment for the residents" at the secure unit, wrote Roy Kemp, administrator of the DPHHS’ Division of Quality Assurance, in a notice of violations and order dated March 23. “The number of substantiated reports of abuse and or neglect has increased at an alarming rate which places residents and staff at an unacceptable level of risk of harm.”

Kemp issued the notice to Haire after sending him a notice of violations and order for corrective action March 10. Within one week, DPHHS received three reports from the DOJ, substantiating abuse and neglect by eight staff members at the secure unit.

“Of the eight staff members, three members were substantiated against in two of the reports. … Based on the information in these Department of Justice reports, the department concludes that the (secure unit at MDC) has not established and does not maintain a humane and safe environment for the residents,” Kemp wrote. “(Staff) is ill-trained and inadequately supervised, resulting in their inability to properly engage with residents.”

Disability Rights Montana, a protection and advocacy group which has been monitoring the facility for more than 20 years, has told legislators the MDC and Haire have failed to fulfill the facility's mission.

The facility opened as the Boulder River School in 1893 and became the MDC in 1985, DPHHS said. The MDC is now funded for 56 licensed beds. Its residents present an increasingly complex set of developmental, behavioral and psychiatric disorders, with 90 percent having a co-occurring mental health diagnosis and 13 percent having been convicted of crimes, sentenced to the state under a forensic commitment or placed at the facility to serve sentences.

The state institution employs at most 250 full-time employees, including 160 direct staff for 50 residents. The other 90 employees include client services coordinators, custodians, nurses, shift managers, treatment and program specialists, unit coordinators and food preparation, maintenance and warehouse workers, said Disability Rights Montana in its 2015 report. An average wage for a psychiatric aide or direct staff runs the state $28,009 annually, while staff receives an additional $10,644 annually in health benefits as well as paid vacation, sick time and holiday leave.

Franks-Ongoy and Caferro have both questioned what the state is getting for its money.

In March, the MDC had 53 residents and an annual budget of $14 million. Eight of the residents were criminally committed. Of the 45 not committed, 23 were referred for community services, Franks-Ongoy said. The annual cost for an MDC resident was $270,000 and has been projected to climb to $310,000, in the proposed budget for 2016-2017, while the average cost for someone receiving community care is $40,000, Caferro said. In 2014, the MDC averaged 50 residents in the facility, of which about half have been determined eligible for and referred to the community for services, the DOJ said.

Mixed reviews

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Stacy Fisk has told reporters her 26-year-old son, who is autistic and deaf, was beaten by other residents when he stayed at the MDC from September 2011 to June 2012. The facility provided no autism specialist, and only one staff member knew sign language and could communicate with her son. Drugs were relied on to modify his behavior and his physical health deteriorated, with his weight dropping from 160 to 124 pounds. He is now at a group home and is doing well, she said.

But Carol Dailey has told reporters her son was able to work and participate in activities at the MDC, and that she was concerned about where he would go if it were to close. He has been abused in group homes and refused a place at other facilities because he has a history of aggressive behavior.

The varying stories have complicated the decision-making of legislators and clouded the perspective of the public.

Employees from the MDC met outside City Hall in Boulder April 10 to say just that, adding that Caferro either does not understand or care about the harm she could cause with her bill.

“I take a lot of pride in my job and treat my residents with dignity and respect,” said Kevin Parvinen, who has worked at the MDC for the past 26 years, to a group of staff and neighbors.

“Boulder has given over 120 years of their heart and soul to this facility,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman, who joined the crowd with other government officials to support the economic and social makeup of the city. “This is the best place for the residents. This is where they need to stay. The residents are not going to get a better type of care in group homes.”

Most of the crowd was looking for straight answers to the reasons behind Caferro’s bill, while asking why she thought the private sector would benefit residents.

“It amazes me with the talk of closure that no one has come down and talk to staff at the facility,” said Bruce Giulio, maintenance manager at the MDC. “… The challenges that face the MDC will not be going away because of a shut down. Challenges do exist in the private sector.”

'Center for excellence'

In 2013, after a report of the MDC’s so-called “botched” investigation of the rape of a female resident by a staff member, the Legislature passed a new measure to establish an independent investigation of alleged abuse, neglect and mistreatment of clients. It established that the DOJ would investigate claims instead of the MDC staff and required reports be sent to the Disability Rights Montana for independent review.

The MDC paid the victim and her family $350,000 that year to settle the “rape scandal” case, Franks-Ongoy said. Afterward, Haire promised to turn the facility into a “center for excellence,” hired a clinical director and updated and amended many of its policies regarding abuse, neglect and mistreatment, Franks-Ongoy said. Still, clients came forth and reported sexual, physical and verbal abuse that continues to enrage those who seek to close the center.

A former psychiatric aide at the MDC on April 16 pleaded guilty to pushing a client into a doorway, causing a head injury that required five staples in September 2014. The aide told the residents: "At least I get to go home to my wife,” according to documents filed in Jefferson County District Court.

The remark apparently prompted the alleged victim to say: "I'm going to kill your wife.” Witnesses said the aide pushed the man into the doorway, causing the man to hit his head on the door. The aide told investigators he had been frustrated, but that there was no excuse for his actions.

The future of the MDC and its residents is in legislative limbo and Boulder residents are also waiting for some resolution. The passage of Caferro’s bill would provide a direction, but the execution of the closure plan would be difficult for the community and the institution. If the bill ultimately fails, questions and allegations of abuse and mismanagement still linger.

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