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Hospital Hikes Its Security After Alleged Molestation

Crime: Transient pleads not guilty in the attack on a 6-year-old leukemia patient at Childrens Hospital.

November 19, 1998|RICH CONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Childrens Hospital on Wednesday said it would review its security after a transient made his way past the front desk and allegedly molested a 6-year-old girl being treated for leukemia.

Paul George Wagner, 45, was apprehended by hospital security after the incident. He has been charged with two felony counts of lewd acts on a child in connection with the Nov. 9 incident. A recent arrival from New York, Wagner is being held in lieu of $100,000 bail. He has entered a not guilty plea and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing next week.

Authorities were guarded about details of the assault or the victim, citing privacy concerns.

Hospital officials said that they learned of the incident immediately after it happened, that they secured the area and that their own guards were able to detain the suspect until Los Angeles police arrived.

A criminal complaint filed by the district attorney's office alleges "substantial sexual conduct" and a "lascivious act" involving physical contact with the girl.

"She is unharmed physically, but she is traumatized," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Karla Kerlin, who is prosecuting the case. "This is very traumatic for the whole family."

The incident has renewed debate about how best to balance security measures at hospitals at a time when administrators strive to make medical centers more friendly.

"Whenever anything like this happens, all the hospitals take another look to make certain they are doing everything they feasibly can to safeguard patients, visitors and the staff," said Jim Lott, executive vice president of the Healthcare Assn. of Southern California.

After a skid row resident shot three doctors at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center emergency room in 1993, the state passed legislation requiring hospitals to update security plans focusing on staff and patient safety. The law does not lay out specific guidelines, however.

Childrens Hospital says it complied with the law, but the molestation case highlights how difficult securing a major medical center can be.

The suspect entered the Sunset Boulevard hospital and stopped to obtain a visitor's pass as required at the front guest desk, hospital spokesman Steve Rutledge said.

"He was here with what appeared to be a legitimate reason, or he would not have been allowed in," Rutledge said.

With 62,000 visitors per month, and no previous record of similar problems, hospital officials said the case was an isolated incident.

But Rutledge added, "Obviously, we take it very seriously. We are going to be looking at security measures."

Jean Olander, who oversees state licensing of Los Angeles County hospitals, said she is unaware of any other "case of this nature" at Childrens Hospital.

However, Olander also said she would investigate why the hospital failed to report the nine-day-old assault to her office. The story first appeared on KCBS-TV Channel 2 on Tuesday night. Olander, a county Health Services Department program manager, learned of it via a reporter's inquiry to state regulators Wednesday.

"We expect hospitals to notify us of unusual occurrences," she said. "That [incident] qualifies to me." The hospital could be issued a notice of deficiency and be required to develop a plan to correct the problem in the future.

The hospital's spokesman said officials are cooperating with the health department's review of the matter.

By most accounts from hospital experts and law enforcement authorities, assaults on hospital patients are rare, and far less common than attacks on staff. But they have occurred.

On one occasion a man--never caught by authorities--posed as a hospital staff member and went from facility to facility in the Los Angeles area, slipping into children's wards, officials said. "He actually got in physicians coat and examined a couple of pediatric patients," recalled David Langness, who worked for the Hospital Council of Southern California for 10 years.

Safety measures vary widely.

Some suburban and smaller hospitals allow visitors to freely enter the hospital and patients' rooms. Other larger, urban medical centers have established at least some screening procedures.

"Most hospitals do require you to register and identify the patient you're there to see, and the relationship," Lott said.

Everyone entering Childrens Hospital is stopped at a front desk and asked the reason for their visit, Rutledge said.

Kerlin, the prosecutor, said there is no indication that the suspect knew the victim. Rutledge declined to say what representation the suspect made to gain access to the building, but added, "He appeared to be fairly familiar with hospital procedures." Wagner's attorney did not return phone calls Wednesday.

Lott of the hospital group said, "It's really, really hard to have an absolutely fail-safe system."

Langness, now UCLA's director of health science communications, said concerns for patient security have prompted some hospitals in other areas of the country to tighten procedures.

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