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Patient Hangs Himself at Mental Hospital

The suicide occurs soon after release of a federal probe that finds the Norwalk facility does a poor job of protecting patients from harm.

March 03, 2004|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

A 42-year-old man hanged himself at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk on Friday, just days after the release of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found the facility is doing a poor job of keeping patients from hurting themselves or others.

Clifton Washington of San Bernardino died of asphyxiation from the hanging, David Campbell, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, said Tuesday.

Washington apparently stood on his bed, wrapped a scarf around his neck, tied it to a bar across the window and then kicked the bed away, according to a coroner's report.

The Justice Department study was launched in 2002 after years of allegations about poor care at the sprawling facility in southern Los Angeles County. The hospital cares for more than 800 adults and children who have been either criminally or civilly committed to the facility by courts.

The probe concluded that the hospital policies "fail to protect its patients from avoidable harm." In addition, the hospital was blamed for misdiagnosing and mismedicating patients, while allowing them to languish for months or years with improper care.

The investigation stated that 15 patients at Metropolitan attempted suicide from May 1, 2001, to April 30, 2002. In a similar period, there were 475 patient-against-patient assaults, 310 incidents in which patients hurt themselves and 304 accidental injuries, according to the report.

Washington's death was the first successful suicide at the facility since about 1998, said Catherine Bernarding, the hospital's spokeswoman. She would not discuss specifics of Washington's death.

Gaylyn Malone, Washington's sister, said that her brother had been despondent ever since he was placed at Metropolitan last summer by the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health.

"He wanted out of there," she said. "He said the staff didn't like him and there's too many fights. It was not a good place."

Malone declined to identify her brother's mental illness. She said he had been sick since 1980, but had stayed in San Bernardino facilities until an incident landed him in the mental ward of a local hospital.

San Bernardino County mental health officials then had Washington committed to Metropolitan under the auspices of a conservatorship, Malone said. She said that the family was fighting to get Washington moved to a better facility near his brother in Sacramento, but a transfer had been denied by a San Bernardino County conservator investigator on Feb. 20.

Malone said she was told by a hospital official Friday that Washington had cut his hand trying to scale a fence early that morning. "They told us he went to have his hand cleaned at a nursing station on his unit, and then he said he was tired and wanted to go to his room and lay down," Malone said. "Then, five minutes later, they checked on him and found he had hung himself.... Why did they let him out of their sight?"

Washington had been placed in Metropolitan under a conservatorship, said Ralph Ortiz, program manager for the behavioral health department's adult care system. He would not discuss specifics, citing patient confidentiality concerns.

Ortiz said, however, "For someone to need to go to a state hospital, the level of dysfunction in the community needs to be pretty high, and usually that's resulting from placement barriers or a degree of danger that precludes placement in the community."

Nora Romero, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health, said that an investigation of Washington's death had been launched by the state Department of Health Services.

"There has been a tremendous deterioration in care at the hospital" over the last decade, said Jeff Griffin, executive director of the Los Angeles-Hollywood chapter of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a patient advocacy group. "What has become the norm there is, 'We can't handle you, so we'll give you drugs the rest of your life.' "

Washington will be buried Saturday in San Bernardino.

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