The Arizona Daily Star, March 6, 1998
3 agencies rule today on Desert Hills youth shifts
Navajo County, parents pull 6 for safety reasons
By Rhonda Bodfield
Officials with three state agencies will meet today with Desert Hills to decide whether to remove youths from the Tucson behavioral treatment facility.
Meanwhile, Navajo County authorities and parents concerned about safety removed six youths they had placed at Desert Hills, said Vic Bork, a probation officer for the Northern Arizona county. Most were removed yesterday.
Gov. Jane Hull said that she and her staff are reviewing rules and policies at Desert Hills Center for Youth & Families, 2729 N. Introspect Drive, particularly the use of restraints.
``Do their rules need to be more stringent? I have to tell you that if kids are in danger in this state, they will be,'' Hull said yesterday.
But Senate Assistant Minority Leader Ruth Solomon, D-Tucson, said she has already decided she wants the children removed.
``I want the kids out. I don't think that we take a chance with any of our children,'' she said. ``I know I would not want any child in state care in that facility.''
Fifteen-year-old Edith Campos of San Ysidro, Calif., died last month after a Desert Hills psychiatric worker pinned her to the ground to restrain her, according to a Child Protective Services report.
Several lawmakers said yesterday that Department of Juvenile Corrections officials told them they planned to remove 11 girls from Desert Hills because of safety concerns. The department also houses 19 boys at the residential treatment facility for troubled youths.
But after day-long meetings, the Department of Economic Security, the Department of Health and Juvenile Corrections decided to delay action.
Juvenile Corrections spokesman Steve Meissner declined to explain.
``The next step is to listen to what Desert Hills is going to do to manage the current environment. I think that's the logical next step,'' he said.
Meissner said the department's contract, which expires in August, has a clause allowing it to cancel should the facility not meet its conditions. The amount the department pays to house a child at Desert Hills was not available yesterday, he said.
Desert Hills spokesman Kirke Cooper did not return calls seeking comment. In a written statement Wednesday, Desert Hills officials emphasized that patient records are confidential by law.
``Without the written permission of a minor patient's parent or guardian, we cannot talk about the patient or any incident involving the patient, even if that information would contradict most of the allegations made in previous reporting,'' they said.
Linda Palmer, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said staff members visited Desert Hills on Monday. They were told that the four employees involved in the restraint of Campos were placed on leave.
Palmer said moving children is not always the best option.
``I don't have enough information yet to go to a judge and say what the dangers are (to order the facility closed),'' Palmer said. ``Horrible things can and do happen. People die in surgery in hospitals. That doesn't mean you close the hospital down and make everyone move.
``If we went in there like gangbusters to close that place down, we'd have a whole lot of parents who were very unhappy.''
The governor predicted yesterday morning that if one state agency removes children in its custody from Desert Hills, others might follow.
``My understanding is there was going to be a decision made (by various agencies) in the next few days about whether to pull kids,'' Hull said. ``If one is starting, I imagine they'll all go.''
John Clayton, deputy director of the Department of Economic Security, said his agency has 17 children at Desert Hills, for which they pay $151 per child, per day. He confirmed his staff is looking at other possible placement options. But they will wait until today to decide whether to remove kids, based on the response they hear from Desert Hills, he said.
``I would think each agency would have the autonomy to make its own decision, but generally if one agency would feel that they were uncomfortable, the other agencies would (also),'' he said.
If the plan doesn't allay agency concerns, ``then obviously everybody will be moved,'' he said. Clayton said it will be up to individual caseworkers where each child would go next.
Records show Child Protective Services documented five cases of abuse in the past five years. Asked why the agency did not respond sooner, Clayton said it's important to look at the broader picture.
During the past 12 years, CPS investigated 23 reports of child abuse or neglect at Desert Hills, according to DES reports. Of those, CPS concluded seven were valid.
Desert Hills officials criticized news coverage in their written statement Wednesday.
``When Tucson's media insists on reporting incidents from Desert Hills' past, often years before the current owners took over last November, it's as if the national media were chastising a sitting president for the perceived or actual wrongs of a former administration,'' said Kevin Sheehan, president and CEO of Youth and Family-Centered Services, which bought the facility in November. Desert Hills officials are scheduled to meet today with state department heads to discuss an action plan to ensure the safety of juveniles placed there.
Some lawmakers were supportive of the delay in deciding whether to remove youths. Sen. Ann Day, a Tucson Republican who called for agency meetings yesterday, said that it isn't clear whether a safety problem exists at Desert Hills.
Sen. Elaine Richardson, D-Tucson, said she's comfortable with the delay. ``They've got the hammer over their head. They're going to be awful careful,'' she said.
Rep. Herschella Horton, D-Tucson, agreed that enough state agency staff are at Desert Hills monitoring the situation ``to assure the safety of the kids. And that's what I care about most. . . . Kids should not have to die for us to take action.''
Two Navajo County Superior Court judges ordered the removal of four youths and parents removed two others, said probation officer Bork. One girl was released to her parents. The others went to other health facilities.
Bork did not know the court's specific concerns, but said ``for the safety of the children, they were ordered removed.''
One of the county's youths was a 14-year-old girl whose mother complained that a physical restraint by Desert Hills workers last month left the girl with a broken vertebra in her lower back. The mother took her home Wednesday.
Tucson police records show that CPS reported that injury to police last month in the wake of Campos' death. An initial police report released Wednesday said that the girl's injury was ``minor'' but remained under investigation.
Navajo County officials will decide whether to resume sending kids to Desert Hills based on the findings of police and state investigations, Bork said.Finally, regarding pending investigations about recent incidents at the facility, Sheehan says: ``When all the facts are known, we will respond honestly and professionally and with all the candor the law allows.''
DESERT HILLS STATEMENT
Full text of the press release issued Wednesday by Desert Hills:
``When Tucson's media insists on reporting incidents from Desert Hills' past, often years before the current owners took over last November, it's as if the national media were chastising a sitting president for the perceived or actual wrongs of a former administration,'' said Kevin Sheehan, president and CEO of Youth and Family-Centered Services, which bought Desert Hills in November 1997. ``It's mixing apples and oranges, blaming us for historical events.''
And regarding the many allegations made in such reporting, Sheehan says, ``If we could tell you what we knew, you'd have a very different perspective! The media, but not the general public, knows that patient records are privileged by law. Without the written permission of a minor patient's parent or guardian, we cannot talk about the patient or any incident involving the patient, even if that information would contradict most of the allegations made in previous reporting. At the same time, people outside this organization are free to say anything they want - including blatant lies.''
``We do not question the media's right to report on our facility,'' Sheehan adds. ``But to report on events which took place when different policies, different procedures and different ownership were in place misleads the public into thinking that those events are connected with us today. Burying a paragraph about new ownership far into a story does not fairly enlighten the public about this situation - everyone knows that public opinions are influenced most by headlines and the first few paragraphs of any story.''
Arizona Daily Star reporters Jane Erikson, Alisa Wabnik and Enric Volante contributed to this story.