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Mental-Health Center Receives Fine

The fee is levied after an employee of the Sylmar facility allegedly had sex with a patient.

March 27, 2003|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Health inspectors have fined one of two mental-health facilities under investigation for a host of escapes and patient-care violations $3,000 because an employee had sex with a psychiatric patient.

In addition, Los Angeles County mental-health officials are looking into whether the facility, Sylmar Health and Rehabilitation Center, acted negligently in failing to stop a mentally ill patient from swallowing two pencils and a toothbrush this month.

Inspectors from the state and county launched a surprise inspection of Sylmar and its adjacent sister facility, Foothill Health and Rehabilitation Center, earlier this month because of concerns about lax supervision.

The $3,000 fine arises from an incident that predates the surprise inspection. The citation alleges that an employee had sex with a schizophrenic patient after she asked him for a kiss. The Class B citation, which normally carries up to a $1,000 fine, was tripled because of previous patient-care violations.

In response to the citation, Sylmar's administrator, Cherlyn Hawkins, wrote that the employee involved had been terminated and that staff training would be held each quarter to avoid such problems. In addition, patients will be encouraged to report any sexual advances by the staff, she wrote.

Separately, the county Department of Mental Health is looking into whether Sylmar staff could have prevented a client from swallowing a toothbrush and pencil earlier this month. The items were removed at a hospital, and the client was returned and placed under one-on-one supervision. He then swallowed a second pencil.

Marvin Southard, the county's director of mental health, said he hasn't arrived at any conclusions about the facility's handling of the case. "If you're treating very ill people, events like this are not unexpected," he said. "You need to look at the exact details to find out if there was clear negligence or if this was just one of those unfortunate things that happens."

Los Angeles County has paid $41 million since 1998, including $8.9 million in the fiscal year ending in June, to house severely mentally ill patients at the two locked psychiatric facilities. Last year alone, at least 50 residents escaped or attempted to flee from Foothill and Sylmar, both owned by Golden State Health Centers Inc., based in Sherman Oaks.

Golden State officials could not be reached for comment.

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