Squeaky wheels

November 28, 2005

State officials' decision to seek to shut down the Chesapeake Youth Center is a victory both for the children who were ill-treated there and for the staff and advocates who spoke up for them.

It is rare for the state to revoke a license for a residential treatment center such as Chesapeake, which cares for up to 60 seriously mentally ill children. But the severity of the charges - and the number of separate, confirmable reports of mistreatment - made it inevitable.

"I felt like I was being exposed," a 17-year-old girl told state investigators, when nurses at Chesapeake Youth Center punished her for assaulting a doctor by making her wear nothing but a paper hospital gown for several days. Past and present staff members told The Sun's Lynn Anderson of children being locked in rooms or tied down on a cushioned platform and left there without food, water or bathroom access. One saw a staffer start a fight with a patient, and another staffer give a boy a black eye.

Other children were denied visits or phone conversations with parents as a form of punishment. Children repeatedly sanctioned by staff for acting out were not seen by psychiatrists, who might have been able to diagnose the immediate problem, be it wrong dosage of medicines or some emotional trigger that workers didn't know about.

"Things were horribly wrong," Wendy A. Kronmiller, acting director of the Office of Health Care Quality, which investigated the reports, told The Sun.

These children are emotionally fragile; that is why they are at an inpatient treatment center. They need understanding, patience and treatment, not abuse.

Abused is how the whistleblowers feel, too. Some lost their jobs because they pointed out the wrongdoing of others; still they spoke out. Parents, too, reported their children's evidence of abuse despite fears that their children would be further punished.

Chesapeake's owners have a month to show that they're doing things right there, now. That's reasonable: State investigators did not find similar "extremely troubling" problems at other centers the group runs. Should the facility retain its license, the state should continue the spot-checks that confirmed the troubles the whistleblowers brought to light. It is the state's job, after all, to make sure the facilities where it sends its wards actually help them.

For years there have been rumors about bad things happening at Chesapeake - and at some other private facilities that care for Maryland's most troubled youth - but no one would step forward. This year, enough cries were sounded to move the state to action at Chesapeake. One hopes this example will strengthen the course of other whistleblowers.

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