After patient abuse investigation at state-run Choate center, stiffer possible penalties for health care workers who cover up

The change in Illinois law follows reports of rampant abuses and coverups at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center, a state-run institution in southern Illinois.

SHARE After patient abuse investigation at state-run Choate center, stiffer possible penalties for health care workers who cover up
The brick institutional building of the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center is seen at dusk with a park bench in the foreground.

Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center.

Whitney Curtis / ProPublica

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed a bill strengthening the possible penalties a state watchdog can impose on health care workers who conspire to hide abuse or interfere with investigations by the Illinois State Police or oversight bodies.

The change in the law follows an investigation by Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises Midwest and ProPublica into rampant abuses and coverups at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center, a state-run institution in southern Illinois that houses people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental illnesses.

The law applies to employees of state-run institutions and privately operated community agencies for people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses that operate under the oversight of the Illinois Department of Human Services and its inspector general.

The news reports detailed employees lying to investigators, leaking sensitive investigative details, retaliating against people who reported abuse and seeking to indoctrinate new workers into the coverup culture. Such actions made it difficult to pursue cases of patient abuse, yet those responsible rarely faced serious consequences.

It allows the inspector general to report workers who engage in such misconduct to Illinois’ Health Care Worker Registry, which would bar them from working in any health care setting in the state.

Previously, workers could be barred because they’d been found to have engaged in financial exploitation, “egregious” neglect or physical or sexual abuse. The new law adds “material obstruction” of an investigation to the list of findings that can be reported to the registry maintained by the state health department.

Pritzker signed the bill on the same day the inspector general released a 34-page report that recommended a “top-to-bottom analysis” of all processes related to the reporting of abuse and neglect at Choate “because at the present time there appear to be fundamental problems with all aspects of that system.”

The report cited the beating by Choate’s staff of a patient with a developmental disability in December 2014. Four mental health technicians were charged with felonies in connection to the beating. Three pleaded guilty to failing to comply with abuse reporting laws for state employees. The other, Mark Allen, a mental health technician who initially was charged with felony aggravated battery, pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice.

The report said at least eight people colluded to obstruct the state police and inspector general’s investigations, though they later told investigators it was the worst case of abuse they’d ever seen.

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