A small hospital in Eastern Montana is facing sharp criticism from the local community after announcing last month that it had re-hired a nurse who was convicted in 2009 of receiving child pornography on her computer.
The Roosevelt Medical Center in Culbertson announced in a Sept. 27 post on its Facebook page that it had hired Denise Carlson, who was released from federal prison in 2016 after admitting to receiving child pornography and serving more than six years.
“We have unanimously selected to hire Denise Carlson, a highly recommended and qualified former registered nurse from Plentywood who previously worked at RMC,” the post read in part. “Carlson has many years of experience and her previous employment record is impeccable.”
It also acknowledged Carlson’s criminal history, which the hospital’s governing board sought to address by inviting community members to a special meeting Wednesday night.
Roosevelt Medical Center CEO Audrey Stromberg on Thursday declined to characterize the response from the community, instead pointing to the response to the hospital’s Facebook post. The post was shared more than 100 times and generated over 100 comments, the vast majority of which condemned the decision to hire Carlson. Many of those comments came from residents of Culbertson and other small towns the medical center serves.
“It’s all out there for you to see,” Stromberg said of the community response. She estimated that Wednesday’s board meeting attracted about 50 people.
Stromberg defended the board’s unanimous decision to retain Carlson, saying the nurse had worked for seven years as a “casual status employee” who picked up other nurses’ shifts prior to her conviction.
“She provided good nursing care. None of the charges were directed at activity while she was working here,” Stromberg said.
Stromberg also acknowledged that small rural hospitals typically have difficulty recruiting and retaining medical staff. Similar to many other counties in the eastern portion of the state, Roosevelt County has been designated as a Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Area since 2012, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.
“It is part of the issue. It’s a definite consideration,” Stromberg said. “But it is not the entire decision.”
Few of those who provided feedback to the hospital’s announcement appeared to support the RMC board’s decision, however. Many, if not most, of those commenting vowed to take their children elsewhere for medical care.
“People had commented that everyone deserves a second chance, but what are we teaching our children by allowing such a horrible crime to be praised,” Emilee Starin wrote Wednesday in a message to The Gazette in response to a request for an interview. A Williston, North Dakota, resident, Starin stated she has taken her children to the medical center in the past, but would not continue to do so.
“I want to know the place where we should feel safe is properly staffed with not only qualified people but respectable people with a clean record,” she continued.
Other commenters contacted Thursday by The Gazette — both supporting and condemning the hospital’s decision — either did not respond or declined to comment on the record. Attempts to reach Carlson at her most recently listed home phone number were also unsuccessful.
Many area residents responding to the Facebook post cited Carlson’s status as a registered sex offender as a reason not to bring their children to the hospital for medical care. Carlson pleaded guilty to the single charge in June 2009, admitting to downloading sexually explicit images and videos of minors for a roughly nine-year period before federal investigators traced her activities on a file-sharing program in 2008.
But she also had no previous record of sex crimes or child abuse, according to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision from September 2010. She also passed a polygraph test "regarding hands-on sexual abuse of children" and was the subject of letters and statements from family members, including two of her daughters, that she had otherwise been a competent, caring mother.
Stromberg said Carlson has been hired as a staff nurse, effective Oct. 1. She is subject to restrictions “stipulated by the probationary plan and the Montana Professional Assistance Program,” Stromberg said, adding that she will be primarily working with long-term patients at the hospital.
Because the conditions of Carlson’s 10-year term of supervised release include restrictions on her use of computers, Stromberg said the nurse has additional stipulations allowing her to use hospital computers for “electronic health purposes.”
The Montana Board of Nursing issued Carlson a probationary license in November 2016, according to the state’s licensee database. During its discussion of her license in July of that year, board members considered evaluations from mental health professionals that she was “low risk” as a danger to society, according to audio of the meeting. She was ultimately granted a restricted license requiring continued mental health treatment and monitoring.
Because of her conviction, the board required Carlson to enter into a contract to monitor her rehabilitation process. Her most recent contract was approved in September 2017 and requires her rehabilitation to be monitored by the Montana Professional Assistance Program until September 2020, Department of Labor and Industry spokeswoman Erin Loranger said in an email Thursday.
The hospital's governing board plans to meet to discuss the public's comments on Carlson's hiring and decide what to do next, according to a Facebook post from the hospital Friday. The hospital also planned a closed executive session Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., according to the Facebook page.
The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.