Kevin Rennie: Make Changes Now At Mental Health Agency

A whistleblower and The Courant's Josh Kovner have been exposing a scandal that shames Connecticut. The story of the alleged abuse of patients and alarming conditions at the Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown is a reminder of the brutal consequences of unchecked authority under an administration that is indifferent to the powerless.

Kovner's reporting has held up a mirror to Connecticut. We must not avert our gaze from what it reveals. The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is in charge of the facilities. Changes at all levels of the department must immediately be made. It has failed in its mission "to afford all persons dignity and respect, treat all persons with equity and fairness, and lead with a sense of urgency and accountability." Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is at the head of this calamity, needs to do more than issue a muted statement that the government has been cooperating with investigators and does not condone violence.

So far, 10 state employees have been arrested and suspended for abuse of patients, and more than two dozen others have been suspended only. And it may not surprise you to learn, continue to be paid by the public.

Whiting and Connecticut Valley are adjoining state facilities. Whiting, where the sustained abuse occurred, is a secure hospital for the those adjudicated criminally insane. It is home to more than 90 patients of varying states of mind. It is not an easy place to be a patient and often a difficult facility to work at. There are about 475 more patients at CVH at any time.

We spend, as Kovner has reported, $567,000 a year on each patient. That's about $320 million a year. That ought to be plenty to provide safe conditions and skilled medical treatment for the mentally ill patients.

The state has failed patients and the public on nearly every count. Kovner got on the the story when he learned several Whiting employees had been suspended. Not much more information than that was available. So he dug. He has become the state's best informed person on this dark saga that so many want to ignore.

The veteran reporter found mess after mess. Employees were working dangerous amounts of overtime. While the facilities were flush with resources, there were few modern management systems in place. Employee timekeeping methods, state auditors found, were remarkably inadequate.

The state's public health agency, once it was awoken to the crisis it had long ignored, found that thoughtful care for patients often did not exist for many. Connecticut may have one of the nation's most expensive state governments but its ability to perform this basic function is far down the leader board.

It is a basic tenet in mental health services that each patient must be the subject of an individual treatment plan. The mental health patients in state care range along a wide spectrum of illness. Some are long term residents of the state facilities, others may respond quickly to treatment. Regulators discovered individual treatment plans at Whiting were rare and the medical staff favored cookie-cutter plans for too many patients.

The alleged abuse, initiated by employees and often inflicted on patients when they were sleeping at night, was caught on video. Supervisors, however, failed for long periods to review the shocking recordings.

Two Republican members of the state senate have finally succeeded in scheduling a Nov. 13 hearing on the abuse of patients and general catastrophic mismanagement. They struggled with some of their Democratic colleagues who have not seemed eager to let the sun shine on this mess?  Compassion seems to have taken a holiday. Where are those righteous U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy? Are they such partisans that they refuse to weigh in on state-inflicted violence that might implicate a Democrat? Is their humanity governed by their party affiliation? That's how it looks.

A year from Tuesday, Connecticut will elect a new governor. One of the catastrophes of the Malloy and Wyman administration of the last seven years has been its unsettling inclination to turn away from the hardest parts of running a sprawling government. They isolated themselves from critical child protection issues and responsibilities. They have done the same with the most serious mental health challenges. The growing herd of candidates to replace them must not be allowed to do the same.

Editor's note: This column was revised to include the date of a newly scheduled hearing.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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