The Arizona Daily Star, March 8, 1998

Time to act on Desert Hills

Too much information is emerging to accept that a death and many injury cases at Desert Hills psychiatric center are just accidents. A pattern of aggressive patient handling make this center a candidate for major reform or perhaps state closure.

What's really disturbing is an apparent looseness of state oversight and monitoring. State guidelines, but not law, require staffers to be adequately trained to handle the clients they treat, yet the Star has interviewed former employees who never had training in ``taking down'' restraint methods.

A Tucson psychiatrist who worked at Desert Hills for several years said the center has many unprepared technicians with little supervision in charge of difficult and troubled patients.

Conflicting versions between the patients and staff about incidents that ended in injuries, and in one case the death of a 15-year-old girl, don't prove exactly what happened. Investigations are still ongoing. Yet information about the troubling incidents come from official Child Protective Services reports which the Star secured through a court order.

As far back as 1994, long before the current Desert Hills owners took over, a CPS worker was told by a Department of Economic Security licensing specialist: ``Desert Hills showed a definite pattern and incidents of abuse toward residents. And incidents were more widespread than was first thought.''

There is persuasive evidence from both patients and former staff members that the center doesn't properly train workers. It appears they misuse the ``takedown'' procedure in which patients are restrained on the floor, sometimes with workers sitting or lying on them. Injuries and hospitalizations result, and experts advise this technique shouldn't be done except as a last resort.

Now, in 1998, the problems persist. On Feb. 2, Edith Campos of the San Diego area was restrained by two staff members after she began ``acting out.'' According to a CPS report, one staff member lay on top of the girl, pinning her face on the ground as she turned blue. The man lying on her arms and upper body restrained her for several minutes, and when she was lifted up she was cyanotic, indicating her oxygen had been cut off.

She died in a hospital two days later, and police are investigating possible asphyxiation.

Another girl, a few weeks before, was restrained in an event which fractured a vertebra. She complained of back pain for a month, with only ibuprofen to relieve it. Finally, an X-ray revealed the fracture.

The CPS reports give more details of what happened in these and other events going back several years. Some occurred before the new ownership and others happened after, but regardless of the owner, the use of forceful restraint there has resulted too often in injury - from facial rug burns to broken bones and perhaps the February death. Why didn't CPS see this pattern emerging? And why didn't the agency take any action against Desert Hills?

The state health department which licenses treatment centers should have seen the pattern as well.

Desert Hills houses many state clients referred from the Department of Juvenile Corrections and CPS, as well as private patients.

Several agencies finally are discussing removal of patients because of concerns about the incidents.

It's in the state's interest to protect all psychiatric patients from improper restraint, but it's especially in the public's interest to see that state patients, backed by taxpayer money, are not confined in a center that's out of line.

Far too much has happened at Desert Hills that deserved alert state attention long before this. Whatever the investigations conclude, the state can no longer tolerate children at risk in institutions that are supposed to be helping them.

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