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CULTURE OF CRUELTY

State-run facilities in Illinois are supposed to care for people with mental and developmental disabilities. But patients have been subjected to abuse, neglect and staff misconduct for decades, despite calls for change. Capitol News Illinois' Beth Hundsdorfer joined with Molly Parker of Lee Enterprises Midwest and Propublica beginning in 2021 to launch the "Culture of Cruelty" investigation into the state-run Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in southern Illinois.

Surprise and unanswered questions after state announces changes at Choate

Surprise and unanswered questions after state announces changes at Choate

Pritzker says cultural issues at facility are ‘something that you can’t snap your fingers and fix’

By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
& MOLLY PARKER
Lee Enterprises Midwest
News@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – Families of patients at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center, along with workers and community leaders, reacted with concern after the state’s announcement this week that it plans to relocate more than 120 residents from the troubled state-run facility in southern Illinois.

Rita Burke, whose 53-year-old son has lived at Choate for more than 30 years, said Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou and two other senior state officials called her on Saturday evening to inform her of their plans.

Burke said she was shocked because Ryan Croke, a senior official in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office who was on the call, had previously given her assurances that Choate would not close, and never suggested that large numbers of residents would be forced to leave, she said.

“We are devastated and so disappointed. It seems to us that DHS and the governor’s office are pushing our loved ones out of their homes of many, many years,” said Burke, who is also president of the Friends of Choate parents association. (Asked about Croke’s prior characterization of the administration’s plans, a spokesperson for the governor’s office reiterated that Choate is “not closing” and said it expects to continue a “productive relationship” with families and guardians during the transition.)

She moved to southern Illinois from Georgia with her husband and other children in 1990 because her son was unable to access adequate adult disability services in their home state. Now, she’s again left wondering about the future of his care. 

For people like her son, changes in routine can be extremely disruptive and affect their ability to function, she said. “They can’t be moved like puzzle pieces,” she said. “They’re human beings. I think we need to put the ‘human’ back into the Department of Human Services.” 

Burke, a former chair of an IDHS board that reviews internal abuse and neglect investigative reports, said she visits the facility often and maintains that it is safe. 

In 2017, a Choate employee punched her son so hard that it broke two of his ribs. But Burke said the fact that the employee was swiftly arrested and charged, and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery, showed that the oversight system worked. The employee was fired and barred from working in a health care setting.

In interviews with reporters in advance of Wednesday’s announcement, Pritzker and Hou stressed that they are not closing Choate, instead billing the change as a “repurposing and restructuring” of the facility that opened in rural Anna near the Missouri border in 1873. 

In addition to immediate plans to begin the process of moving 123 residents out, the state will work with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine to determine a plan for another 112 individuals who live in “speciality” units. The state expects to keep a 49-bed psychiatric hospital on the grounds open, and may expand it, Hou said. 

Pritzker and Hou were not specific about where residents would go, other than to say they’d have the option to move into other state-operated developmental centers or community settings.

Hou and Pritzker said the changes reflect the administration’s desire to reduce the population at its state-operated centers and invest more heavily in community living options. The changes, they said, were also spurred in part by reporting on egregious cases of abuse, neglect and attempts to cover up mistreatment by staff. Those revelations were brought to light by an ongoing news investigation by Lee Enterprises, Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica. 

Terri Bryant, a Republican from Murphysboro whose district neighbors Choate, said she believed the Pritzker administration’s plan is shortsighted and lacking in concrete details. In a call with reporters on Wednesday, she accused the governor of taking the “lazy-man’s route” to fixing safety and workforce issues raised in news reports. 

“They’ve wrapped this in a pretty red ribbon so the locals don’t throw a fight about closure when in reality they’re moving the most vulnerable members of our society two hours away, at a minimum,” Bryant said. 

During a Wednesday news conference, Pritzker told reporters IDHS was making reforms to ensure patient safety, but “this is something that you can’t snap your fingers and fix.”

In time, Pritzker said, it became clear that efforts to change the conditions at Choate weren’t enough. 

“We are at a point today where all of those things weren’t working to the degree we wanted them to, so today we are making transformational changes,” he said. 

Other southern Illinois lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach. Rep. Paul Jacobs, a Republican from Pomona, a small town 15 miles north of Anna, said his primary worry was that the governor would seek a full closure of the facility. Jacobs and Bryant joined their 57 GOP colleagues in the House and Senate in calling for legislative hearings on Choate late last month. At the time, he and others demanded that IDHS take steps to fix issues while ensuring that the facility remained open. 

“They’ve come up with a plan that will transform it, and I think it might be a good plan,” Jacobs said. 

Likewise, Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from upstate Lake Forest who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, called it a “good start.” She added that it is “vital immediate action is taken to double down on safety precautions” at the same time people are transitioning out of the facility.

Advocates for people with disabilities applauded the governor’s decision. 

Stacey Aschemann, a vice president with Equip for Equality, a legal aid organization that is appointed to monitor conditions at Choate, said the organization is “thrilled” that the majority of residents with developmental disabilities will no longer live there. But she said she is concerned about the safety of people who will remain there in units kept open or while awaiting a transition.

“Many of the recent news stories are about incidents that happened a year or more ago,” Aschemann said. “Based on our recent monitoring, we can say without a doubt that these continue to be ongoing issues.” 

Union groups expressed alarm about what the decision means for workers. Pritzker told reporters on Tuesday that no layoffs are included in the plan. 

But AFSCME Council 31 President Roberta Lynch, whose union represents many of the rank-and-file Choate employees, said in a statement that the union is “extremely concerned” about the fate of Choate residents and employees.

Rick Loza, a specialist with the Illinois Nurses Association which represents nurses employed by IDHS and at Choate, said in an interview that “a few bad apples” were to blame for the abuse cases at Choate that have drawn headlines. The union on Wednesday filed a “demand to negotiate” with the administration based on concerns about future job losses, Loza said. 

Local elected officials in and near Anna also were critical of the plan.

“I am encouraged that the closure rumors had been put to rest, but I remain concerned about the future of the facility,” said Union County Board Chairman Max Miller.  

The stories of abuse and neglect detailed in the news accounts weren’t a surprise to him, Miller said. He blamed the abuse on employees from outside of Union County.

“There are so many people working there now that aren’t local. That job is just a paycheck to them,” Miller said. 

Anna Mayor Steve Hartline, the former chief of security at Choate for 20 years, declined to comment. 

Some with close ties to Choate said they didn’t think the governor’s plan goes far enough to keep residents safe.

Lutrice Williams, who lived at Choate for about four years until her discharge in 2020, said she was abused during her time there and didn’t get the level of care she needed. In February, an employee pleaded guilty to whipping her repeatedly with a belt in 2020. 

“It’s not happening in just one unit,” she said of the abuse of patients. “You know the saying, ‘no child left behind’ – if you go, we all go. That’s how it should be.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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