Clean up the mess at state’s mental hospitals

C.J. McKenzie says that her son, Doug, in Florida State Hospital, is pressured to keep silent about conditions there.
C.J. McKenzie says that her son, Doug, in Florida State Hospital, is pressured to keep silent about conditions there.

At this point in the state’s tawdry history of caring for its most vulnerable and troubled residents, the only surprise about the horrific conditions inside Florida’s hospitals for the mentally ill is that they are not a surprise.

This is the state, after all, where more than 500 children under state supervision died from violence, abuse and neglect over six years. Where the prison system harbored murderers on the payroll, corrections officers who lorded their authority over inmates with torture and violence. Where too many staffers in the juvenile-detention system still wait too long before summoning medical care for sick or severely injured teens.

So, no, it is not surprise that reporters for the Tampa Bay Times/Sarasota Herald-Tribune exposed the unbridled — and increasing — violence in state-funded mental hospitals, overseen by the Department of Children & Families. The complete and total fear of staffers who tend to unpredictable patients. The seemingly never-ending budget cuts and the severe understaffing.

At the same time, the treatment patients require if they are to have any hope of living a productive life barely exists. Just between 2011 to 2013, former DCF Secretary David Wilkins oversaw $61 million in cuts from the hospitals, reporters found. That was more than 15 percent of funding — and in addition to $35 million in cuts two years before. Hospitals eliminated almost a third of their workforce. Counseling and training classes were eliminated, leaving patients with little chance of recovery and staffers in danger from the most unstable among them.

And, once again, state officials, including lawmakers, have rigged the whole thing to ensure that violent incidents are under-reported, shielded from public scrutiny — even from families desperate to find out about loved ones. It’s a reprehensible perpetuation of state agencies’ “hear, see and speak no evil” approach to its care of children, seniors, prisoners, the physically challenged and mentally ill.

Little of this started with the Scott administration currently in office, but there’s been little reform, either. In 2005, DCF told hospitals that they didn’t have to disclose most patient injuries. Despite officials’ desire to know as little as possible about what was happening on their watch, investigators for DCF itself and the Agency for Health Care Administration waved huge red flags about staffing shortages and an increase in compensation claims tied to a rise in violence at the hospitals.

And 10 years later, current DCF administrators seemed flummoxed by the reporters’ disclosures of conditions in what can only be called hellholes. But they shouldn’t have been. DCF’s own numbers revealed a 45-percent increase in violent incidents at its mental hospitals since 2008. One official responded that they track numbers “daily, weekly, monthly.” Still, the hard facts seemed to elude even them.

Such discouraging bafflement on the part of DCF’s top administrators doesn’t bode well for the chance of real reform coming from within. As in the case of the hundreds of children who died in DCF care, outlined last year in the Herald’s Innocents Lost series, or that of prison-facility deaths, also disclosed by the Herald, this latest challenge needs a champion — champions, really — to step forward and push for new laws and policies that confront the conditions that have led to state-funded atrocities. The most vocal advocates should be those who labor in the Governor’s Mansion and the Capitol.