If the true test of government is how it treats its most vulnerable members, then North Carolina is failing. Children suffer in the health facilities that are supposed to help them, and too often the state seems to do very little about it.
A new report from North Carolina Health News tells the story of an 11-year-old girl from Durham who was admitted to Brynn Marr Hospital, a mental institution in the eastern part of the state, when she started to have suicidal thoughts. The week she spent at Brynn Marr left her traumatized – it was desolate, terrifying and she was allegedly sexually abused by an older patient.
Her parents filed a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, citing poor communication, lack of adequate care and unsafe conditions at the facility.
The department, according to NC Health News, dismissed the complaint, saying “we do not believe an investigation is warranted at this time.” DHHS later said it would reopen the issue and schedule an investigation, but only after state Rep. Craig Meyer got involved by emailing DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley.
This is not an isolated incident and it is not new either. Harrowing stories of abuse in mental institutions are sadly common, but change and accountability are rare.
Complaints remain unanswered and uninvestigated. In the event that an investigation takes place and deficiencies are discovered, the sanction is often little more than a slap on the wrist – a fine or “correction plan” that is worth about as much as the paper on which it is printed. And all the while, these for-profit facilities continue to benefit financially from a “treatment” process that so blatantly fails the patients it is meant to help.
Many patients in these facilities are interned against their will – a process that is too ruthless in itself. It means being handcuffed in a police car and transported to a treatment center, where neither the patient nor their parent or guardian has the right to make health decisions. In North Carolina, there has been a staggering increase in involuntary engagements over the past decade — a spike that’s closely tied to a burgeoning mental health crisis that’s having a particularly acute effect on children.
Police have received 117 phone calls alleging sexual assault or rape in Brynn Marr over the past three and a half years, according to local police records obtained by NC Health News. Brynn Marr has also received a number of state citations dating back several years, including a failure to report serious incidents — such as a patient attempting suicide — to state agencies as required by law. of North Carolina.
Throughout North Carolina, similar problems exist. An in-depth investigation published last year by the USA Today North Carolina Network detailed the desolate and inhumane conditions in children’s mental institutions across the state. The survey found that few patients receive the care they need and many suffer abuse from staff or other patients.
DHHS finally closed a mental institution in Garner after years of violations that endangered and traumatized patients, The News & Observer reported last year.
This doesn’t just happen in North Carolina. Brynn Marr belongs to Universal Health Services, a large, for-profit company that owns hundreds of facilities across the country, including two other mental health treatment centers in North Carolina. Universal Health Services has come under scrutiny from federal regulators as well as Congress for allegations of abuse and neglect at its behavioral health facilities. Most of these facilities receive taxpayer-funded payments from Medicare and Medicaid, which means they are subject to oversight by state and federal regulators.
But where are the regulations? How and why does this keep happening, and why have the authorities done nothing to stop it?
That hundreds of children continue to suffer inside these facilities is a dereliction of duty on the part of DHHS and the legislators who fund it. That it would take the power and influence of a state legislator to initiate an investigation into the sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl while in someone else’s custody is ashamed.
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