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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Eck's Bill Would Change Oversight At Warm Springs

State of Montana

The Montana State Hospital, the state’s only public psychiatric facility, is coming under fire for the way it handles complaints of abuse or neglect. The best known case occurred five years ago, when the state paid $375,000 to settle a complaint by the family of a female patient raped by a convicted sex offender. Democratic lawmaker Jenny Eck of Helena wants the state Department of Justice to handle complaints about the mistreatment of patients

“Currently those investigations are conducted by staff at the hospital, who are put in the problematic position of investigating their co-workers, sometimes for potentially serious criminal acts," Eck said introducing her bill Wednesday in the House Human Services Committee.

It would assign abuse investigations to the Montana Department of Justice, and shift one staff position from the state hospital to the DOJ. Eck's bill would also require the state hospital to share any reports of abuse or neglect with Disability Rights Montana, a private group that is federally mandated to investigate complaints and advocate for the disabled.

“It is well situated to ensure that these incidents are appropriately investigated, corrective action is taken, criminal offenses are referred to law enforcement and patients are protected," Eck said.

Currently, Disability Rights Montana only investigates complaints from the state hospital if a patient’s family contacts them. But DRM Staff Attorney Beth Brenneman says they need be in on an investigation from the beginning.

“We really are relying upon the reports of patients oftentimes who are in crisis and have a really hard time talking about when exactly things happened, being very good reporters about time and place and what witnesses were there and those sorts of things," Brenneman said. "So we have a hard time finding out initially that there was an event at all.”

The committee heard from several family members of patients who praised the hospital’s staff, but also supported the bill. John Wilkinson said his son spent four years at the state hospital, and gave him daily reports of how hard life is for patients there.

“Sometimes things happen," Wilkinson told the committee, "and when they do happen, they need that objective party’s perspective on investigating the situation, and being able to shed as much light and objectivity on what occurred as possible."

The House Human Services Committee also heard from the man in charge of the State Hospital, but it didn’t hear very much.

John Glueckert, administrator at the hospital, did not try to address any of the complaints about patient abuse at the state hospital, and his only comment concerned whether the hospital would get to answer any allegations before the justice department issued a report on an abuse charge.

“I would just raise the question of what the details of corrective action might be from the Department of Justice," Glueckert said.

After the hearing Glueckert declined to comment on reports of abuse at his facility.

Representative Eck’s bill would take the same action toward the State Hospital that the state took two years ago with the Montana Developmental Center, the state’s facility for people with intellectual disabilities. The legislature put the state Justice Department in charge of investigations, and gave DRM direct access to the information. It’s not clear that those changes produced a big improvement for the residents at MDC. A justice Department report last fall concluded that abuse complaints continue.

The committee will decide later whether to send the bill to the full house.

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