UIC report slams Hartgrove psychiatric hospital

Hartgrove Hospital, a psychiatric facility on the West Side. (Phil Valasquez/Tribune)

In a damning new report, experts from the University of Illinois at Chicago paint a grim portrait of conditions at a Chicago psychiatric hospital, describing an environment of chaos, physical attacks and sexual assaults that regularly puts its young patients in harm's way.

The report, released Tuesday by the state Department of Children and Family Services, found that Hartgrove Hospital, on Chicago's West Side, often was understaffed and over capacity — a dangerous combination that created opportunities for frequent attacks by patients on other patients and hospital staff.

In some cases, hospital employees physically harmed patients.

Reviewers from UIC interviewed children and teens who expressed fear for their safety or that of more vulnerable peers.

After reviewing findings of a preliminary report, DCFS officials in June put an "intake hold" on the facility, meaning they will not authorize the placement of state wards at Hartgrove.

"It's our duty to ensure the safety of children in state care, and we will take whatever action is necessary to keep our kids safe," DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said.

Experts from UIC's department of psychiatry spent about six months investigating conditions at Hartgrove, a 150-bed private psychiatric hospital that treats adults, teens and children.

The psychiatry department's mental health policy program has been conducting reviews of psychiatric hospitals on behalf of DCFS since 1995 pursuant to a federal court consent decree involving DCFS and the ACLU. The reviewers serve as independent experts.

About 100 violent incidents were documented between December 2010 and mid-June 2011, which included physical attacks, uncontrolled threatening behavior and sexual assaults.

In one case, an "aggressive" male patient, a DCFS ward, who had been discovered receiving oral sex from a female patient a day earlier, was observed "stalking females" on one of the units, according to records.

In another incident, one girl assaulted another, "tearing out her hair and punching her in the face," according to the report. The victim sustained a swollen eye.

The Tribune has previously reported on violence and sexual assaults at psychiatric facilities for youth, including Hartgrove.

In a statement, officials from Universal Health Services Inc., the Pennsylvania-based parent company of Hartgrove, said: "Despite the findings in the UIC report, Hartgrove is proud of its track record and has many more success stories to its credit than the negative ones highlighted in the report."

The statement said hospital officials are working with the appropriate agencies "towards a resolution which will allow Hartgrove to serve DCFS wards again."

Other hospitals owned by UHS have come under scrutiny in recent years, including facilities in at least eight states.

Among the chilling details in the UIC report on Hartgrove were descriptions of some hospital employees who appeared to be indifferent or too poorly trained to treat seriously mentally ill youth.

One case involved a 16-year-old girl with severe sickle cell anemia who was forced to cope with intense pain for long periods of time. When she became overwhelmed and had emotional outbursts as a result, staff blamed her for not being able to control herself.

A psychiatrist at the facility labeled her behavior as "med-seeking," according to records.

In another case, employees in May reportedly fractured the arm of a 16-year-old boy, who was not a state ward, apparently because they were not properly trained in restraint techniques.