At a remote mental health facility, a culture of cruelty persists despite decades of warnings

At a remote mental health facility, a culture of cruelty persists despite decades of warnings

By MOLLY PARKER
Lee Enterprises Midwest
BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois

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

Over a year ago, the security chief at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in southern Illinois sent an email to the head of the state agency that operates the facility, warning her of dangerous conditions inside.

“What I am presently seeing occur at Choate and hearing occur at other facilities concerns me more than it has my entire career,” Barry Smoot, a decades-long IDHS employee, wrote to Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou on May 26, 2021. Among the  recommendations he wanted to make: that cameras be installed inside the facility.

Hou responded that same day, agreeing to meet.

But no meeting took place. Instead, Hou suggested Smoot start by sharing his concerns with her chief of staff, Ryan Croke, and the director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities, Allison Stark, according to records of the exchange. But those meetings never happened, either. (Stark left the agency in July.)

An excerpt from Smoot’s email (Obtained by Capitol News Illinois and Lee Enterprises Midwest)

It would take more than a year, and some high-profile arrests related to abuse at the facility, before the agency unveiled a plan to address poor conditions at Choate. This June, Hou sent a letter addressed to “stakeholders” in which she publicly acknowledged safety concerns at Choate for the first time. The agency, she said, would be rolling out a series of reforms in response to “serious allegations about resident abuse and neglect” at the facility located at the edge of the small town of Anna.

The reform plan, she wrote, includes hiring four additional security officers, installing 10 surveillance cameras on the facility grounds, having staff undergo new training and increasing the presence of senior IDHS officials inside the residential units. Her letter referenced safety issues that arose “in the last year” but offered no other specifics.

Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou (Jerry Nowicki/Capitol News Illinois)

At least 26 Choate employees have been arrested on felony charges over the past decade, according to reporting published today by Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises and ProPublica. Of those, the local state’s attorney has filed charges against more than a dozen, including three administrators, since 2019, when Hou was appointed IDHS secretary by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. (Charges have been dropped against two of the administrators charged with official misconduct and obstruction of justice.)

Marisa Kollias, a spokesperson for the agency, said the facility is working expediently to implement these reforms, but she cautioned that it will take time to implement all aspects of the plan. Senior IDHS officials told reporters in an interview last week that the enhanced training and monitoring have been underway for months and, to date, the department has hired one of the four new security officers. The department ordered the cameras this summer, but they are on backorder and no date has been set for installation, the department officials said.

In a statement, Kollias said that the agency determined, “based on information gathered” after the secretary’s initial response to Smoot, “that it was inadvisable for IDHS management staff to communicate with him any further.” The department did not provide further details.

Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center (Whitney Curtis for ProPublica)

 

Camera Controversy

Smoot was not the first to raise alarms. The inspector general’s office at IDHS has repeatedly cited the facility for failing to adhere to rules regarding reporting and investigating abuse and neglect allegations. 

IDHS’ inspector general recommended the installation of cameras in the course of 21 investigations into abuse and neglect allegations at Choate between fiscal years 2015 and 2021, according to a review of internal records by the news organizations. Each time, Choate officials responded to the inspector general that it was “not an option due to budget concerns.”

This summer, advocates and insiders praised Hou’s announcement that IDHS would finally install cameras.

But in response to reporters’ questions, Kollias, the agency spokesperson, clarified that the cameras would go outside the facility.

One former investigator with the inspector general’s office, when told of the plan to put cameras outside, called it “a waste of money and time.” Almost all abuse and neglect allegations stem from incidents that occur inside.

“This is all being done for show,” said former Office of the Inspector General Supervisor and Choate Unit Director Charles Bingaman, who retired from IDHS in 2013. “I predict that it will have no real impact on patient safety.”

Senior IDHS officials acknowledged to reporters in an interview last week that the inspector general had previously recommended interior cameras.

But placing cameras in interior common areas on a residential unit requires the consent of every resident who lives in that unit, or their guardian, per guidelines from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which partially funds Choate. Placing them outside does not require consent.

Kollias said that officials met virtually this month with organizations led by parents of residents in IDHS’ developmental centers, including Choate, who informed the agency they do not want cameras inside the facilities.

The Office of State Guardian — which handles the personal, financial and legal affairs of people who require a guardian because they are developmentally disabled, elderly or mentally ill —  represents 22 patients at Choate. An office spokesperson said the department did not object to cameras inside the facility and continues to have conversations with IDHS regarding their installation. A senior IDHS official, who spoke to reporters on condition that her name not be used, said that the installation of cameras outside Choate is a “pilot program” to try to help with the issue of residents leaving the facility without authorization and improve security on facility grounds.

 

A Long History of Problems

States across the nation have closed dozens of large facilities like Choate in the past 20 years, following a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled it is unconstitutional to segregate people with disabilities from the rest of society. But Illinois has been a holdout. It houses more people with developmental disabilities in large institutions, and spends more to operate those institutions relative to statewide personal income, than almost every other state in the nation, according to a review of data compiled by researchers with the University of Kansas.

For years, the state has also failed to intervene when serious abuse patterns are found inside its institutions. Since the late 1990s, state and federal overseers have told Choate to do more to protect and serve its residents.

In 1992, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Illinois on behalf of patients, alleging that poor conditions at state-run psychiatric hospitals violated patients’ rights to safety and medical care. Five years later, a report commissioned by the ACLU found that Choate had a culture of staff intimidating and abusing patients. In one case, a patient who had a colostomy as the result of a gang rape was repeatedly punished by staff for urinary and fecal incontinence, according to the report. That same year, the parties settled the case with the state of Illinois, which agreed to enhance staffing and training.

In 2005, after two patients died from neglect at Choate, Equip for Equality, a federally designated legal advocacy organization for people with disabilities, found numerous unsafe conditions and poor treatment of residents. The advocacy group — which had been appointed by the state to monitor conditions at the facility — cited issues such as the way Choate staff used restraints to control residents, tactics that Equip for Equality called “extraordinarily excessive” and said were in violation of state and federal law. In its report, the organization called Choate’s practices “archaic.”

In response to Equip for Equality’s findings, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division launched an investigation and warned the state in 2009 that the Choate staff’s failures to help residents successfully transfer out of the facility into community living arrangements violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The facility had further failed to protect them from harm and provide adequate health and psychiatric care, the DOJ found.

Excerpt from A DOJ report about Choate issued in 2009 (Department of Justice Document)

Stacey Aschemann, a vice president with Equip for Equality, expressed disappointment that so little has changed since her organization’s and the Department of Justice’s investigations.

Equip for Equality began once again monitoring conditions inside Choate in early 2021. Those monitoring activities included stationing employees inside the facility; interviewing staff, residents and their guardians; and reviewing records.

Based on that monitoring, Aschemann said, the abuse and neglect of residents by staff continues to be a “serious concern.” Equip for Equality will continue to monitor the facility to determine whether the changes Hou announced in mid-June adequately address the safety and quality concerns raised by the organization, Aschemann said.

Smoot said leadership’s slow response to the serious issue he encountered left him deeply troubled. But it was not the first time he had sought to bring problems within IDHS to the attention of senior leadership.

Prior to his role at Choate, Smoot worked as an investigator for the IDHS inspector general, probing allegations of abuse and neglect of disabled adults who lived in their homes.

After leaving the OIG, Smoot worked security at IDHS facilities, ending his career at Choate.

Earlier this year, he self-published a book, “Failure to Protect,” outlining many of his concerns about the inspector general office’s weak oversight authority and how he felt the agency had failed the residents at state-run facilities like Choate.

In December, on the last day of his 20-year career with IDHS, he sent Hou an email to let her know that no one had followed up with him.

This time, there wasn’t a response, according to records of the email exchange obtained by reporters. Smoot said he wasn’t expecting one, but he hoped someone would heed his warning and take his advice. “Without any time left, it was a Hail Mary pass,” Smoot said in an interview.

Leave a Comment





Local News

Hon. Koula Fornier

Fournier resigns from TTO to become judge

Spread the love

Spread the loveFrom staff reports The Lyons Township Trustees of Schools is accepting applications for a vacancy on their board, after Trustee Koula A. Fournier resigned earlier this month after being sworn-in as a Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. Fournier was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill the Maloney vacancy of…

SRP-IMAGE-Logo

Boys Hoops Wrap | Curie, Rice and Marist among area regional champs

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Xavier Sanchez Correspondent The original March Madness got underway last week across Illinois, and several area teams were crowned regional champions. Teams still alive in Class 4A are Marist and Curie, and in Class 3A are Brother Rice, De La Salle, Evergreen Park and Mount Carmel.   CLASS 4A Marist (29-4) cruised…

Evergreen Park senior Tre Dowdell crosses over a Hillcrest defender during the Class 3A Evergreen Park Regional championship game on Feb. 23. Photo by Xavier Sanchez

Boys Basketball Class 3A Playoffs | Evergreen Park tops Hillcrest for first regional title since 1974

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Xavier Sanchez Correspondent Some Evergreen Park players have deep roots in the community, but it was a newcomer that carried the Mustangs to a monumental win. Senior guard Tre Dowdell put up a game-high 30 points and Mustangs rolled to a 74-50 win over Hillcrest in the Class 3A Evergreen Park Regional…

SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview could be the site for Northwestern football games in 2024. Photo by Jeff Vorva

College Football | Northwestern football may play at SeatGeek

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Jeff Vorva Correspondent It appears that Chicago’s Big Ten team will be Bridgeview’s Big Ten team for at least one day. Maybe more. Northwestern has released its 2024 football schedule, but where the Wildcats will play their seven home games is unknown. Their home stadium, Ryan Field in Evanston, is undergoing a…

Nazareth senior Amalia Dray fight through a Kenwood defender during the Roadrunners’ 50-37 win in the Class 4A Mother McAuley Sectional title game. Photo by Xavier Sanchez

Girls Basketball | Sakalas, Dray lead Nazareth over Kenwood for sectional crown

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Xavier Sanchez Correspondent Nazareth head coach Ed Stritzel has built his Roadrunners powerhouse program on a defense-first philosophy that is carrying the reigning Class 3A state champions through another postseason run. “We are the definition of a team,” Stritzel said after Nazareth defeated Kenwood, 50-37, in the Class 4A Mother McAuley Sectional…

Mount Carmel's wrestling team celebrates a Class 3A championship. Photo courtesy of Mount Carmel High School

Postseason Roundup | Mount Carmel wrestling wins fifth state title

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Jeff Vorva Correspondent During the regular season, only one wrestling team from Illinois beat Mount Carmel in a dual meet. Joliet Catholic got the better of the Caravan with a 38-27 victory on Jan. 18. That came two days after Mount Carmel lost to Crown Point (Indiana). The Caravan will be unable…

St. Laurence's Kathleen Martin gets off a shot against Hinsdale South in the Class 3A St. Ignatius Sectional on Feb. 22 in Chicago. Photo by Jeff Vorva

Area Sports Roundup | St. Laurence girls hoops has benchmark season

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Jeff Vorva Correspondent The St. Laurence girls basketball team’s historic season came to a close with a 42-29 loss to Hinsdale South at the Class 3A St. Ignatius Sectional on Feb. 22, but the Vikings hit some milestone’s in former Marist and Saint Xavier star Claire Austin’s first year as coach. The…

CRRNH_CheesiesLogo_022824

Cheesie’s coming to Garfield Ridge

Spread the love

Spread the love. Popular ‘pub & grub’ coming to Archer/Nashville .  By Tim Hadac A business strip in need of a shot of adrenaline is about get a bit of zing next month. Cheesie’s Pub & Grub, a well known favorite on the North Side, is bringing its casual dining fun to the vacant Lindy’s/Gertie’s…

Nancy Diaz, area coach of operations for Panda Express, cuts the ribbon at the new Oak Lawn restaurant on Feb. 15. Joining her for the ceremony were (far left) Oak Lawn Trustee Paul Mallo (3rd) and Mayor Terry Vorderer. Xin Qin, the regional director of operations for the new Panda Express, is at far right. (Photos by Joe Boyle)

Oak Lawn welcomes second Panda Express restaurant

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Joe Boyle A large crowd of customers began lining up outside the new Panda Express in Oak Lawn the morning of Feb. 15 and were not disappointed when they entered the restaurant. A major draw to the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony was that the first 88 customers to enter the restaurant…

evergreen park logo

Evergreen Park officer arrests armed driver after traffic stop

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Joe Boyle What appeared to be a routine traffic stop resulted in the arrest of an armed man in Evergreen Park. At Monday’s Evergreen Park Village Board meeting, Police Chief Michael Saunders requested that Officer Adrian Ortiz receive a commendation for making an arrest of a suspect who may have been a…

Neighbors

Hon. Koula Fornier

Fournier resigns from TTO to become judge

Spread the love

Spread the loveFrom staff reports The Lyons Township Trustees of Schools is accepting applications for a vacancy on their board, after Trustee Koula A. Fournier resigned earlier this month after being sworn-in as a Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. Fournier was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill the Maloney vacancy of…

SRP-IMAGE-Logo

Boys Hoops Wrap | Curie, Rice and Marist among area regional champs

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Xavier Sanchez Correspondent The original March Madness got underway last week across Illinois, and several area teams were crowned regional champions. Teams still alive in Class 4A are Marist and Curie, and in Class 3A are Brother Rice, De La Salle, Evergreen Park and Mount Carmel.   CLASS 4A Marist (29-4) cruised…

Evergreen Park senior Tre Dowdell crosses over a Hillcrest defender during the Class 3A Evergreen Park Regional championship game on Feb. 23. Photo by Xavier Sanchez

Boys Basketball Class 3A Playoffs | Evergreen Park tops Hillcrest for first regional title since 1974

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Xavier Sanchez Correspondent Some Evergreen Park players have deep roots in the community, but it was a newcomer that carried the Mustangs to a monumental win. Senior guard Tre Dowdell put up a game-high 30 points and Mustangs rolled to a 74-50 win over Hillcrest in the Class 3A Evergreen Park Regional…

SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview could be the site for Northwestern football games in 2024. Photo by Jeff Vorva

College Football | Northwestern football may play at SeatGeek

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Jeff Vorva Correspondent It appears that Chicago’s Big Ten team will be Bridgeview’s Big Ten team for at least one day. Maybe more. Northwestern has released its 2024 football schedule, but where the Wildcats will play their seven home games is unknown. Their home stadium, Ryan Field in Evanston, is undergoing a…

Nazareth senior Amalia Dray fight through a Kenwood defender during the Roadrunners’ 50-37 win in the Class 4A Mother McAuley Sectional title game. Photo by Xavier Sanchez

Girls Basketball | Sakalas, Dray lead Nazareth over Kenwood for sectional crown

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Xavier Sanchez Correspondent Nazareth head coach Ed Stritzel has built his Roadrunners powerhouse program on a defense-first philosophy that is carrying the reigning Class 3A state champions through another postseason run. “We are the definition of a team,” Stritzel said after Nazareth defeated Kenwood, 50-37, in the Class 4A Mother McAuley Sectional…

Mount Carmel's wrestling team celebrates a Class 3A championship. Photo courtesy of Mount Carmel High School

Postseason Roundup | Mount Carmel wrestling wins fifth state title

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Jeff Vorva Correspondent During the regular season, only one wrestling team from Illinois beat Mount Carmel in a dual meet. Joliet Catholic got the better of the Caravan with a 38-27 victory on Jan. 18. That came two days after Mount Carmel lost to Crown Point (Indiana). The Caravan will be unable…

St. Laurence's Kathleen Martin gets off a shot against Hinsdale South in the Class 3A St. Ignatius Sectional on Feb. 22 in Chicago. Photo by Jeff Vorva

Area Sports Roundup | St. Laurence girls hoops has benchmark season

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Jeff Vorva Correspondent The St. Laurence girls basketball team’s historic season came to a close with a 42-29 loss to Hinsdale South at the Class 3A St. Ignatius Sectional on Feb. 22, but the Vikings hit some milestone’s in former Marist and Saint Xavier star Claire Austin’s first year as coach. The…

CRRNH_CheesiesLogo_022824

Cheesie’s coming to Garfield Ridge

Spread the love

Spread the love. Popular ‘pub & grub’ coming to Archer/Nashville .  By Tim Hadac A business strip in need of a shot of adrenaline is about get a bit of zing next month. Cheesie’s Pub & Grub, a well known favorite on the North Side, is bringing its casual dining fun to the vacant Lindy’s/Gertie’s…

Nancy Diaz, area coach of operations for Panda Express, cuts the ribbon at the new Oak Lawn restaurant on Feb. 15. Joining her for the ceremony were (far left) Oak Lawn Trustee Paul Mallo (3rd) and Mayor Terry Vorderer. Xin Qin, the regional director of operations for the new Panda Express, is at far right. (Photos by Joe Boyle)

Oak Lawn welcomes second Panda Express restaurant

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Joe Boyle A large crowd of customers began lining up outside the new Panda Express in Oak Lawn the morning of Feb. 15 and were not disappointed when they entered the restaurant. A major draw to the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony was that the first 88 customers to enter the restaurant…

evergreen park logo

Evergreen Park officer arrests armed driver after traffic stop

Spread the love

Spread the loveBy Joe Boyle What appeared to be a routine traffic stop resulted in the arrest of an armed man in Evergreen Park. At Monday’s Evergreen Park Village Board meeting, Police Chief Michael Saunders requested that Officer Adrian Ortiz receive a commendation for making an arrest of a suspect who may have been a…