A security camera caught an employee beating a patient. It took 11 days for anyone to take action.

A security camera caught an employee beating a patient. It took 11 days for anyone to take action.

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 in the common areas of Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center were supposed to make the troubled southern Illinois facility safer for the approximately 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 floor 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 on the same unit without consequence or restriction until an anonymous letter prompted an investigator to go looking for the video. During that time, no one at the facility, including witnesses to the event, reported the abuse, according to public records.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration announced in March the plan to install cameras in the wake of an ongoing news investigation by Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica that unearthed a culture of cruelty, abuse, neglect and cover-ups at Choate. The administration also announced it would move 123 individuals from the facility. So far, 34 Choate residents have moved, mostly to other state-operated developmental centers.

The cameras were supposed to deter employees from mistreating patients or to quickly dispel false allegations of abuse by keeping a record of interactions. But a little-discussed provision, intended to protect workers’ rights and patients’ privacy, almost kept the incident from coming to light: The video can only be reviewed 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 Feb. 12. The allegation led investigators to access video from that day to determine if the accusation was valid. Records show that it took until Feb. 23 for Choate security to review the video.

Within hours of that review, Spaulding submitted his resignation. Another employee, Shushya Salley, was placed on paid administrative leave after the video emerged. Though her involvement isn’t clear, the form referring the case to the state police, from the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General, noted that there were witnesses. If Salley witnessed the abuse, she was required to report it within four hours. She did not respond to requests for comment.

During a phone interview on Thursday, Spaulding denied abusing any patients. He said he resigned because he was tired of the poor working conditions and difficult schedules at Choate.

The OIG, which is charged with looking into allegations of abuse and neglect, investigated Spaulding five times in the past three years, records show. None of the prior allegations were substantiated.

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

Spaulding, who has worked at Choate since 2015, said he believed that policy revisions have kept patients who have had emotional outbursts from facing any consequences, and that in turn has led to the facility “going to shit.”

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

A grand jury indictment outlines the charge of aggravated battery against John Curtis Spaulding while on the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center grounds. (Obtained by ProPublica and Capitol News Illinois. Highlighted and redacted by ProPublica.)

Spaulding has not appeared to enter a plea. He is scheduled to appear in court on July 1.

Of the more than 20 employees identified as being charged with felonies on suspicion of abusing patients at Choate or covering it up during the news organizations’ ongoing investigations, only two were convicted of a felony. One of those defendants was later allowed to withdraw his plea and plead down to a misdemeanor. Not one employee, even those who caused serious injuries, has received prison time for abusing a patient.

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

“Thanks to the addition of the cameras in the facility, the offenders were caught and promptly removed for their entirely unacceptable misconduct,” Alex Gough, spokesperson for Pritzker, said in a statement. “The vast majority of workers at the state’s 24/7 facilities perform their duties with compassion, but anyone who violates the sacred trust between care provider and patient should be held accountable.”

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

Last year, then-IDHS Secretary Grace Hou announced the cameras would be installed at all state-operated developmental centers, starting with Choate.

Barry Smoot, a longtime IDHS and OIG employee who also served as head of security at Chester Mental Health Center and Choate, said it is important for employees to be able to report without fear of retaliation or repercussions since video can only be accessed after an allegation is made and footage is not continuously monitored.

“Has it affected the culture? No. Has it been used to catch abusers? Yes. The only way the cameras can do their job is if someone reports it. And the staff that are identified as present and not stopping the abuse or reporting the abuse need to be severely dealt with,” Smoot said.

If staff and residents are fearful of speaking out, Smoot said, they can report their allegation anonymously to the inspector general and include the time, date and location so the video can be accessed.

Choate’s employee head count was full as of Tuesday, but IDHS records showed that 65 employees — nearly 14% of the workforce — were on administrative leave or reassigned to other duties while the inspector general investigated allegations of abuse 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 pulled and reviewed by the OIG, the union posted on its Facebook page: “Be professional when interacting with our individuals and please keep yourself safe. We know the cameras can be beneficial in our daily operations. Remember, you may be reviewed by cameras when allegations are presented. Again, be professional. You may be seen even though you are not a target of the accusations. Remember, you may be reviewed.”

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