The Minnesota Department of Human Services violated a federal court order when it sent a violent, developmentally disabled teenager to the state’s adult psychiatric hospital in St. Peter, where he brutally assaulted a staff member on July 13, according to court documents reviewed by the Star Tribune.
The 16-year-old, who had a deeply troubled childhood and is referred to in court records as “W.O.,” was transferred in May from a juvenile detention center in Pine County to the Minnesota Security Hospital, a facility that houses some of the state’s most mentally ill and dangerous adults. The move violated a 2011 legal settlement designed to protect patients with solely developmental disability from ending up in the security hospital.
The decision has drawn harsh criticism from some disability advocates and lawmakers, who argue that placing the teen in a facility housing many adults with violent criminal histories may have intensified his mental distress. Within two months of his transfer, W.O. allegedly assaulted a female security counselor at the St. Peter facility and left her with head injuries so severe she was hospitalized.
The case also underscores Minnesota’s desperate shortage of treatment facilities for youths with developmental disabilities and histories of aggressive or violent behavior.
“This is one more sign that our system is failing vulnerable young people,” said Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, a member of the legislative committee that oversees the security hospital. “What does this say about the state of our safety net if the best we can do for a developmentally disabled child is to put him in a state facility with adult criminals?”
Officials with the Department of Human Services (DHS) declined to discuss W.O.’s case for privacy reasons, but acknowledged gaps in the system for treating teenagers and young adults who have developmental disabilities and aggressive behavior.
“We are looking at ways to address these gaps so individuals can be placed in the setting most appropriate to their needs,” the agency said in a written statement.
Placement of a juvenile at the state’s largest psychiatric hospital is unusual, and generally occurs only when there are “no other appropriate options,” agency officials said. Currently, the St. Peter facility has just two juveniles, and just nine patients committed solely with a developmental disability. In the rare cases when they place a juvenile at the security hospital, agency officials said, they try to move the patient back to the community as soon as it can be safely accomplished.
To move W.O. to the security hospital, DHS requested a variance from state rules; and then approved its own variance request, according to an internal document reviewed by the Star Tribune.
The transfer also violated the terms of a 2011 court agreement, known as the Jensen settlement, that prohibits transfers to the security hospital of persons committed solely with a developmental disability.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who is overseeing implementation of the Jensen settlement, ordered DHS to submit a plan for transferring W.O. from the security hospital by July 31st.
“It’s the wrong setting and the state knows it,” said Shamus O’Meara, a Minneapolis attorney representing people with developmental disabilities and their families in the 2011 legal settlement. “They allowed a 16-year-old child with a developmental disability to go into a hostile place with a criminal population, and now you see the result — disaster.”
Fetal alcohol syndrome
W.O., who is still a patient at the security hospital, has had a chaotic and troubled childhood, court records show. Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, he was a year old when he suffered severe head injuries from shaken-baby syndrome. Child protection authorities placed him in foster care but, unable to determine who harmed him, returned him to his mother. She started using drugs and was in and out of treatment 13 times. His father was an untreated sex offender. By the time W.O. was adopted at age 4, he had been in three different foster homes.
At age 10 his adoptive parents could no longer handle him, according to court records. Over the next six years, child protection workers sent him on an odyssey of foster homes, group homes, treatment centers and hospitals, where he often ran away or turned violent toward staff.
In December 2012, records show, he gave a staff member at one facility a concussion. He was moved to another treatment center, where in March 2013 he was charged with assault for hitting a teacher in the face. That July he threatened to kill people at another home.
Following several more placements at treatment centers and group homes, W.O. was sent to a child behavioral hospital in Willmar. In September 2014, he was charged with two felonies after he was accused of grabbing a female staff member by the breast and crotch, punching her in the face and throwing her against a wall. He also spit in a police officer’s face.
One month after being sent to a Pine County group home, W.O. kicked a staff member until she lost consciousness. That prompted his transfer to St. Peter.
Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, said the state’s placement of W.O. at the mental hospital is “clearly inappropriate,” given his age and the absence of a commitment for a mental illness. Ideally, the teenager should be moved to a secure home where he can receive individualized treatment, though the few facilities that could treat W.O. are usually filled, she said.
“He is a developmentally disabled child who can’t handle an environment as large and as stimulating as St. Peter,” Opheim said. “The fact that he is in the wrong environment, where they can’t meet his needs, has only made his situation worse.”
Less than two months after being admitted to the security hospital, W.O. assaulted the female security counselor so severely that she was taken by ambulance to the Mayo Clinic in Mankato with head injuries. No criminal charges have been filed in the incident.
The state’s failure to bring violence under control at the security hospital has drawn the attention of Gov. Mark Dayton and prominent state lawmakers. On Tuesday, Dayton’s chief of staff, Jaime Tincher, toured the facility and said the state is hiring 20 additional security counselors, and 24 other clinical and support staff, to improve security and quality of treatment.