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Questions of oversight raised as investigations into CVH patient abuse allegations continue

MIDDLETOWN --  37 workers have been suspended and 10 staff members have been arrested in the ongoing investigations into alleged patient abuse at the Whiting Forensic Division of Connecticut Valley Hospital, the state’s only maximum security psychiatric hospital.

State leaders on the Public Health Committee held public hearings throughout Monday on the matter. In that hearing there was a firestorm of questions for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, or DMHAS, who oversees the hospital.

The alleged abuse was of the patient Bill Shehadi, named during the hearing by his brother and co-conservator, Al Shehadi.  He spoke publicly for the first time at the hearing.

“It was the feeling of cat’s playing with a cornered mouse that was most disturbing to me,” Shehadi said as he described the video footage from inside his brother’s room as the alleged abuse went on.

Police arrest warrants outline the abuse ranged from taunting to antagonizing to physical and sexual in nature. Throughout the more than eight-hour hearings, the culture among the workers at the Whiting facility was put into question repeatedly.

“I feel there is a complete lack of accountability of leadership,” Senator Heather Somers said.

She and other members of the Committee drilled the commissioner of DMHAS, Miriam Delphin-Rittmon.  They pointed out that it was a whistleblower who brought the alleged abuse to light, and cited anonymous tips from constituents that claim there is a culture of fear among the Whiting staff when it comes to reporting suspected patient abuse or neglect.

Dephin-Rittmon acknowledge she has since learned of that fear and stated, “I believe that the individuals that were arrested did use fear and intimidation.”  She went on to say she does not believe that same fear stems across all staff with the CVH system.

The Committee also accused the commissioner of a lack of oversight at the hospital.

“I would ask what’s to give us confidence moving forward that there will be routine oversight by an independent body to get to the bottom of these kinds of issues,” State Representative Jonathan Steinberg said.

The commissioner answered back that there is an internal investigation going on to address the concerns and that several steps have been taken to make improvements within the hospital, including changes to the Whiting unit’s leadership.

“It is indeed very troubling that 37 staff have been implicated in these incidents and that these abuses were not reported to Whiting staff themselves,” Delphin-Rittmon said.

The Committee suggested an inspection of the hospital be done by an outside party. They suggested using the State’s Regional Mental Health Board.

The commissioner said a survey by the board was just getting started when the abuse allegations surfaced.  It has since been put on hold.

FOX61 recently spoke to Kristie Barber of the South Central Regional Mental Health Board.

“We were actually in the midst of the review when the Whiting challenges came into play,” Barber explained.  She went on to say that the last time a review by the board had been done inside CVH, was 20 years ago.

Barber also said that although this most recent review was interrupted, they did have preliminary findings from their brief time in the CVH main branch.

“What we’ve found is that patients get in a rut, employees get in a rut at CVH.  Day in and day out you’re together, your personality styles could conflict the way you approach things,” Barber said.

Another issue raised during Monday’s public hearings was that CVH is not licensed, which means the only time the Department of Public Health goes in to do inspections is when an issue is raised.  The Public Health Committee said that is a topic they intend to raise again during the next legislative session.