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A security camera captured an employee beating a patient. It took 11 days for anyone to act.

By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
[email protected]

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Capitol News Illinois.

Cameras installed in common areas at the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center were supposed to make the troubled southern Illinois facility safer for the roughly 200 people with developmental disabilities who live there.

But in mid-February, a camera caught a mental health technician grabbing a patient by the shirt, throwing him to the ground and punching him in the stomach, according to court records.

Although the worker has since been indicted, for 11 days following the incident, the employee continued to work in the same unit without consequence or restriction until an anonymous letter prompted an investigator to seek the video. During that time, no one at the facility, including witnesses to the event, reported the abuse, according to public records.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration announced plans in March to install cameras following an ongoing investigation by Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica that uncovered a culture of cruelty, abuse, neglect and concealment in Choate. The administration also announced it would move 123 people from the facility. So far, 34 Choate residents have moved, mostly to other state-run development centers.

The cameras were supposed to deter employees from mistreating patients or quickly dispel false allegations of abuse by keeping track of interactions. But a little-discussed provision, intended to protect workers’ rights and patients’ privacy, nearly kept the incident from coming to light: The video can only be viewed if there is an allegation of abuse or neglect .

The anonymous letter that sparked the investigation accused mental health technician John Curtis “Curt” Spaulding of attacking a patient on February 12. The allegation led investigators to access video from that day to determine whether the accusation was true. Records show it took until Feb. 23 for Choate’s security to review the video.

Hours after this review, Spaulding tendered his resignation. Another employee, Shushya Salley, was placed on paid administrative leave after the video was released. Although his involvement was unclear, the form referring the case to state police, from the Illinois Department of Human Services Office of Inspector General, indicated there were witnesses. If Salley witnessed the abuse, she had to report it within four hours. She did not respond to requests for comment.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Spaulding denied mistreating patients. He said he resigned because he was tired of the poor working conditions and difficult schedules at Choate.

The OIG, charged with investigating allegations of abuse and neglect, has investigated Spaulding five times over the past three years, records show. None of the previous allegations were substantiated.

“I was better with those guys than 90 percent of the people who work there,” Spaulding told a reporter. “But I’ve never been one to let them walk all over me.”

Spaulding, who has worked at Choate since 2015, said he believes the policy revisions have prevented patients who have had emotional outbursts from facing consequences, leading the facility to “go into the crap”.

Tyler Tripp, the state’s attorney for Union County, where Choate is located, did not respond to questions about the incident, although Illinois State Police records indicate that the The agency presented the case to him in March. A grand jury indicted Spaulding Thursday on one count of aggravated battery and one misdemeanor count of battery.

A grand jury indictment describes the charge of aggravated battery against John Curtis Spaulding while he was on the grounds of the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center. (Obtained by ProPublica and Capitol News Illinois. Underlining and editing by ProPublica.)

Spaulding did not appear to plead. He is due in court on July 1.

Of more than 20 employees identified as being charged with crimes because they were suspected of mistreating patients at Choate or covering it up during ongoing news agency investigations, only two have been convicted of a crime. One of these defendants was later allowed to withdraw his plea and plead to a misdemeanor. No employee, even those who caused serious injuries, has been sentenced to prison for mistreating a patient.

The governor’s office — which pushed for the cameras when it announced a plan to move many Choate residents — credited them with bringing the incident involving Spaulding to light.

“With the addition of cameras to the facility, offenders were arrested and quickly removed for their completely unacceptable misconduct,” Alex Gough, a Pritzker spokesperson, said in a statement. “The vast majority of workers in the state’s 24/7 facilities perform their duties compassionately, but anyone who violates the sacred trust between health care provider and patient should be held accountable. »

The OIG has repeatedly requested the installation of cameras. At least 21 times in six years, the OIG requested cameras so it could more quickly assess the credibility of allegations of abuse and neglect, but those recommendations were rejected for budget and privacy reasons.

Last year, then-IDHS secretary Grace Hou announced that the cameras would be installed in all state-run developmental centers, starting with Choate.

Barry Smoot, a longtime IDHS and OIG employee who also served as chief of security at Chester Mental Health Center and Choate, said it’s important for employees to be able to report their actions without fear of reprisal or repercussions, as the video is only accessible after an allegation. is carried out and the images are not constantly monitored.

“Has this affected the culture? No. Was it used to catch the attackers? Yes. The only way the cameras can do their job is if someone reports it. And staff identified as being present and who fail to stop abuse or report abuse must be dealt with harshly,” Smoot said.

If staff and residents are afraid to speak out, Smoot said, they can report their allegations anonymously to the inspector general and include the time, date and location so the video can be accessed.

Choate’s employee count was complete Tuesday, but IDHS records showed 65 employees — nearly 14 percent of the workforce — were on administrative leave or reassigned to other duties while the inspector general was investigating the abuse allegations against them.

AFSCME Local 141, the union that represents most Choate employees, did not respond to written questions. But eight days before the video was taken down and reviewed by the OIG, the union posted on its Facebook page: “Be professional when interacting with our individuals and ensure your safety. We know that cameras can be useful in our daily operations. Remember that you may be caught on camera when allegations are made. Again, be professional. You can be seen even if you are not the target of the accusations. Remember that you may be examined.