SPRINGFIELD — Decrying Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration’s response to the systemic mistreatment of residents of a downstate mental health center , GOP lawmakers on Thursday laid out a plan to address the long-standing issues.
The proposal from House and Senate Republicans for the Choate Mental Health and Development Center in Anna offers fixes that range from additional surveillance cameras to additional employees who are better trained to work with the mentally and developmentally disabled residents of the facility.
“These are the families’ loved ones. We need to fix it. This is a plan. Is it the perfect plan? No. But it’s a plan and it’s a start. And it’s more than we’ve had from this administration,” state Rep. Charles Meier, of Okawville, said during a news conference at the Illinois State Capitol.
The lawmakers also wrote a letter to their cohorts in the Democratic supermajority calling for legislative committee hearings to discuss the problems.
The letter notes that Choate has been the subject of “more than 1,500 complaints to the Illinois Department of Human Services spanning the last decade” and acknowledges the problems “have spanned multiple DHS directors and multiple gubernatorial administrations.”
“Our concern in this matter is for the dignity, safety, and well-being of the 270 residents of Choate that suffer from the most profound developmental and mental disabilities in the state,” the legislators wrote. “Our concern is far from political.”
Pritzker’s office on Thursday said the administration has taken steps to address the issues at Choate that include more training for staff, as well as an ongoing effort to install indoor and outdoor cameras, an increase of a little more than a half dozen security workers and “increased management presence in living areas and professional staff presence after hours.”
“The governor is closely monitoring the situation and will move forward on additional reforms in the coming weeks,” said Pritzker spokesman Alex Gough. “We take the long-standing problems at Choate very seriously and remain committed to providing good, quality care for residents and patients at the facility.”
Pritzker last week said that finding the right workers for rural facilities like Choate can be a challenge. At the GOP news conference, Meier said there needs to be a “mass hiring” at Choate to bring in workers who “won’t feel threatened maybe from a few bad apples of the past, workers that threatened to try to cover up abuse.
“Let’s train them. Let’s get them in there,” Meier said. “Let’s not hire two or four or 10 at a time. Let’s bring in a group of 50 workers or more immediately to help take care (of this).”
Gough said the Pritzker administration has arranged for an independent, third-party review of conditions at the facility, and that other reviews, including from the Illinois State Police for “security” and “physical structure” needs, have been conducted.
Republican state Sen. Jil Tracy of Quincy acknowledged she’s seen “improvements” in the facility, but suggested that there are “doable solutions” to Choate that can avert a potential for shutting it down, which Pritzker has suggested as recently as last week could be an option.
Tracy grew up in Anna and said she has a developmentally disabled brother who has lived in Choate for about two decades. “They (Choate) have the type of care that is needed by the population that resides there.”
Meier said Choate’s staff needs to keep better track of problems between workers and residents, while also making simple changes such as decorating hallways and rooms.
“This is a small thing but the more the homes (that) are clean, well-decorated, the more the staff and residents take pride in their home,” he said.
An investigation last year by ProPublica, Capitol News Illinois and Lee Enterprises found that Illinois State Police had launched at least 40 criminal probes over the past decade into alleged employee misconduct at Choate.
Employees at the facility have been charged criminally more than a dozen times over the years on allegations that include everything from beating up residents to forcing a resident to drink a cup of hot sauce. Workers have also been cited for not reporting abuse and obstructing investigations and lying to state police.
Aside from saying the problems at Choate are long-standing and will take time to address, the Pritzker administration has laid blame on the previous Republican administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner for budget cuts to social services.
The situation at Choate is one of several issues the Pritzker administration has faced over its handling of state social service agencies.
An auditor general’s report last year blamed Pritzker’s Public Health Department for failing to adequately respond to a COVID-19 outbreak at a state home for veterans in LaSalle that led to the deaths of 36 residents. And child-welfare advocates have repeatedly hammered the administration’s oversight of the Department of Children and Family Services, which has come under renewed fire for failing to find appropriate placements for children.