PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A disability rights organization has sued the state’s behavioral health care agency, alleging the department has unlawfully withheld information tied to accusations that Eleanor Slater Hospital staff abused a patient by using a mechanical restraint.
Disability Rights Rhode Island, an advocacy group with authority to investigate abuse or neglect of people with mental illness, filed the lawsuit earlier this month in Rhode Island U.S. District Court. The group alleges it received an anonymous complaint in June detailing the abuse against the patient, who has a mental illness and developmental disability.
“The complaint alleged that the patient was abused through the use of a mechanical restraint,” DRRI attorney Brian Adae wrote in the initial complaint filed on Aug. 19.
Mechanical restraints, known as TAT belts, are straps used to tie down patients, and they are only allowed in emergency situations when other methods of intervention fail. Eleanor Slater, a state-run hospital for patients with mental and developmental disabilities, has policies that require internal committees to try and limit how much the restraints are needed, and also to investigate use to “prevent abuse, neglect and injury,” according to the lawsuit.
After receiving the complaint in June, DRRI launched an investigation into the allegation and submitted various requests for information from Richard Charest, director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which oversees the hospital.
The requests included all records from the restraint committees, which are supposed to review every time the hospital uses a mechanical restraint. According to the complaint, the state responded on Aug. 17 with information detailing two times when the committees reviewed use of mechanical restraints this year. But the agency denied all other records, arguing the information is protected under state law related to “peer review privilege,” according to the lawsuit.
DRRI subsequently filed the federal lawsuit pushing back on the denial, arguing the group is allowed to access peer-reviewed material under the federal Protection & Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act. The group argues the federal law allows them to access records of people with mental illnesses under certain circumstances, including if they don’t have a legal guardian or are unable to access the information themselves.
Adae argued the patient “is an individual with mental illness who does not have a legal guardian,” adding that when they initiated the investigation, the patient “displayed symptoms of over-medication and DRRI determined that her mental condition prevented her from authorizing access to her records.”
“Therefore, DRRI is entitled to access” the records, Adae argued.
On Thursday, DRRI filed a preliminary injunction asking a federal judge to mandate the records be released.
This isn’t the first time the disability rights group has butted heads this year with Eleanor Slater, a hospital system that’s been embroiled with controversy over the past three years. In May, the advocacy group announced it was investigating the death of former patient Charlene Liberty, who died shortly after she was discharged.
“She was discharged, untreated and unsupported, without even the most fundamental community service she needed to, literally, stay alive,” DRRI executive director Morna Murray said in a passionate statement at the time. “We vow to not let her death be in vain as we investigate the failures of the systems that are intended to protect the most vulnerable among us, and instead too often lead to harm and even death.”
Hospital officials have pushed back on the criticism, however, arguing that whenever its medical staff determines a mental health patient is ready for discharge, they must seek approval from the court system and develop a discharge plan requiring the patient to continue with intensive outpatient treatment.
“In developing the plan, staff seeks input from the patient and, whenever possible, the patient’s family,” BHDDH spokesperson Randy Edgar explained in June. “Discharges of court-ordered forensic patients also require approval from the court. Recently reported public statements that the hospital, through its Benton facility, releases patients without plans for continued treatment or an established network to provide continued care could not be further from the truth.”
On Thursday, Murray said there haven’t been any new developments in the Liberty investigation.
According to federal court, a summonsed for the lawsuit tied to mechanical restraint documents was issued to Charest and BHDDH on Aug. 22. A BHDDH spokesperson did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.