SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday said a southern Illinois mental health center where state investigations have documented systemic mistreatment of residents would be shut down if the problems aren’t fixed, while also pointing to the “big challenges” of finding properly trained workers for rural facilities.
Pritkzer’s remarks followed a report last week by Capitol News Illinois, ProPublica and Lee Enterprises that cited Illinois Department of Human Services’ reports documenting mistreatment of residents by the staff at the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in downstate Anna. The news outlets initially reported on the issues at Choate last year.
Employees at the facility have been charged criminally more than a dozen times since 2019. According to the IG reports, one worker at the facility bragged about beating up a resident, the actions of two others led to a resident breaking his shoulder, and some of those living at the facility were required to search their own feces for objects they may have swallowed.
Asked about those reports, Pritzker reiterated earlier statements that “if the problems can’t be fully addressed then we ought to close it down because the state obviously in that area is incapable of managing the facility properly if we can’t take care of the problems.”
Speaking at an unrelated news conference in Springfield, Pritzker indicated the problems at facilities like Choate are amplified by the shortage of health care workers nationwide.
“Think about what’s going on in Illinois and across the nation right now, which is we have many, many more job openings than we have people who are available to do those jobs,” Pritzker said. “And then think about whether you need people who are trained for a job and then (in a) developmental disabilities facility you sure do need training.”
Illinois State Police have launched at least 40 criminal probes over the past decade into alleged employee misconduct at Choate, according to last year’s investigation by ProPublica, Capitol News Illinois and Lee Enterprises.
Employees at Choate have faced criminal charges for everything from beating up residents to forcing a resident to drink a cup of hot sauce, and also for not reporting abuse and obstructing investigations and lying to state police.
Aside from saying the problems at Choate are long-standing and are taking 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.
The IG reports released by DHS last week describe horrific conditions at Choate.
In December 2014, mental health technician Mark Allen punched one resident in the face and placed him in a chokehold, according to the report. Five other mental health technicians were present during the incident but failed to intervene and report the full extent of the resident’s injuries, even though one of the five technicians told investigators it looked like the resident had “gone three rounds with Mike Tyson,” investigators found.
Allen was charged with aggravated battery and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a felony. Three other mental health technicians pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to comply with reporting requirements.
In a separate incident, Allen was accused of punching the resident in the face during breakfast and dragging him from the dining room area to his bedroom to be restrained, the report said. Allen had also threatened to kill the resident if he reported it to anyone, according to the allegations.
Allen claimed to investigators that he acted in self-defense, but the DHS inspector general’s office “clearly established” that he physically abused the resident.
In 2017, the DHS inspector general found that two other mental health technicians, Cody Barger and Jonathan Lingle, made “inappropriate contact” with a resident, causing the resident to suffer a fractured shoulder. Barger and Lingle initially denied involvement in the incident but a criminal investigation uncovered evidence showing that the two conspired to cover up their roles, the report stated.
Both men pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and were sentenced to two years of probation.
The inspector general issued several recommendations for Choate, among them taking steps to “counteract the cover-up culture that appears to have taken hold” within its staff, and installing more cameras within the facility.
A separate report found that last year the facility “systemically failed” to provide adequate medical care for four residents by requiring them to collect and search their own feces for objects they had swallowed. This practice was used for residents who exhibited an eating disorder called Pica that causes such behavior.
The practice was considered by the inspector general to be “a breach of Standards of Nursing Care” and put the individuals at risk of infection or reinvention of foreign objects.”
The inspector general said Choate has retrained employees regarding “the collection and inspection of feces and X-rays.”
In another report, the inspector general found that in July 2021, two nurses are Choate were neglectful in their duties by failing to take steps to address reported pain by a resident and inform a doctor about their 21-pound weight loss in a week. The resident eventually died.
“Look, there’s no doubt there are continuing issues at Choate and if those continue, as I say, we can’t keep it open,” Pritzker said Thursday. “So, we’ll continue to work on this because it is vital that we have the proper care for our developmentally disabled.”