Crownsville reviews escape policy New superintendent sets up panel in wake of death of missing patient ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

August 12, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

The superintendent of Crownsville Hospital Center, from which a patient disappeared last month and was later found dead, said he is not satisfied with hospital search policies for missing patients and wants to organize a committee to look into them.

Haroon R. Ansari took over as superintendent of the 340-bed hospital the same week the patient's body was found. He said an internal review into the disappearance and subsequent death of George F. Berry III, 30, of Temple Hills has uncovered no wrongdoing in how hospital staff handled the incident.

"I'm happy the hospital followed all policies and procedures to the letter," he said. "But at the same time, I'm not happy because a person [escaped] and was later found dead."

Dr. Ansari plans to appoint a committee to look into hospital policy on searching for patients who wander away or escape. Although staff followed hospital procedures, which included contacting state police and searching the grounds, Dr. Ansari said, current policy doesn't go far enough regarding coordination with state or local police if an escaped patient is not located quickly.

"We need more follow-up and more communication with local law enforcement," he said.

Dr. Ansari said he hopes that the committee, which will be made up of health professionals, mental health advocates and representatives from law enforcement and the community, will draft a more "far-reaching" policy to be used not only by Crownsville, but by all the state's psychiatric hospitals.

Del. Timothy F. Maloney has called for a separate investigation by state Secretary of Health Nelson J. Sabatini into the death of Mr. Berry, who escaped from the Anne Arundel County hospital July 10 and whose decomposed body was found almost three weeks later four miles away.

Mr. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat who represents the district in which the patient formerly lived, said he requested the investigation on behalf of Mr. Berry's mother, Joanah Berry.

Marguerite Bridge, president of the Maryland Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an advocacy group for patients, said representatives from the state's 18 local chapters would meet in Baltimore on Saturday to determine what action their organization will take.

According to Anne Arundel police, Mr. Berry's body was found July 29 at the bottom of a steep ravine off northbound Interstate 97. A Pasadena man looking for water for an overheated car discovered the body near a stream, 200 feet down an embankment.

Michael Golden, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the Crownsville staff reported Mr. Berry missing July 10 after he jumped a 6-foot fence surrounding an outdoor recreation area. Mr. Berry and 24 other patients, who were outside on a "smoke break," were being supervised by two staff members at the time he disappeared.

Although staff reported him missing almost immediately, as required by hospital policy, a search of the 1,670-acre hospital grounds turned up nothing, Dr. Ansari said. State police continued the search until Mr. Berry's body was found 19 days later.

Sgt. Robert Jaschik, who supervises the county's homicide unit, said the initial police investigation ruled out foul play.

He said police believe Mr. Berry died of "accidental or natural causes," possibly heat exhaustion. "We're talking about temperatures in excess of 102 degrees that week," he said.

Police are still waiting for the final autopsy report, including toxicology tests that would show what medications, if any, Mr. Berry had in his blood.

Dr. Ansari, who was recruited from a Michigan mental health organization to improve Crownsville, said "elopements" -- as unapproved leaves are called -- are not uncommon at psychiatric hospitals because many patients have privileges to walk the grounds and even take day trips.

Mr. Golden said there were 296 "elopements" from the state's six mental hospitals in fiscal 1993 and 382 in fiscal 1992.

"There is always that kind of potential and risk when you run a psychiatric hospital," said Dr. Ansari. "Psychiatric hospitals are no longer run like prisons. We try to keep the environment as natural as possible. Higher functioning patients are allowed to leave the grounds. They can take a run or walk or a smoke break outside."

He would not comment on whether Mr. Berry, who had been involuntarily committed to Crownsville in July 1992, had such privileges or should have been more closely monitored.

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