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Sylmar Site Assailed Over Patient Rights

County report finds that staff members of private psychiatric facility violated residents' privacy and treated them with disrespect.

May 03, 2003|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Workers at a private psychiatric facility in Sylmar violated patients' privacy, searched their rooms without permission, took money and personal property and otherwise treated them with disrespect, according to a county report released Friday.

The report on Foothill Health and Rehabilitation Center was released one day after the county Department of Mental Health decided not to renew its contract with Foothill and its adjacent sister facility, Sylmar Health and Rehabilitation Center. Officials said the two centers, both owned by Golden State Health Centers Inc., had too many escapes and patient-care violations.

The county will move its 170 patients at the centers to other facilities by June.

Friday's report was highly critical of some practices at Foothill, but county mental health officials said it was the facility's recalcitrant attitude about correcting problems and improving conditions that were most disturbing.

"These kinds of facilities, by their very nature, will have incidents," said Marvin Southard, director of the county Department of Mental Health. "I would be more inclined to be forgiving to an entity that was very open and was a partner in helping find a solution than I would be with an entity that I ultimately gained the opinion was making an effort to conceal things from me."

For instance, he said, when the Department of Health Services assigned a full-time patients' rights staff member to monitor the quality of care at Foothill, the facility assigned someone to shadow that person.

"Particularly at a crisis moment, for an organization to make those kinds of choices has to tell you that the facility is not well managed," he said.

Golden State spokesman Dan Durazo denied the facility was uncooperative. Staff members at both the Foothill and Sylmar facilities have had excellent working relationships with inspectors from the state and Los Angeles County, he said.

The Foothill and Sylmar facilities fell under increased scrutiny after complaints from a labor union about conditions at the sites. Foothill and Sylmar together had 64 escapes and attempted escapes last year, and county officials said some of those escapes had not been reported as required to health authorities.

While acknowledging that Foothill had a problem with patients slipping away, Durazo cited a recent state Department of Mental Health letter that states "the facility [Foothill] handled these incidents appropriately and reported unusual occurrences, as defined in regulations ... "

Most of the violations cited in Friday's report occurred in one unit.

"The main difficulty seemed to be in one ward -- in unit 3," said a patient advocate for the state, Kathleen Piche, who visited Foothill last week. Some patients in that ward complained that their money had been stolen.

The county mental health department report quotes residents who complain of being "herded" into a room and locked there while staff members searched the patients and their rooms for contraband -- property patients are not allowed to possess.

At least eight residents said their rooms and belongings were searched without their permission, and personal items were removed by staff members.

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