Reacting to a Tribune report that juveniles were allegedly sexually assaulted in Chicago-area psychiatric hospitals, top state officials met last week to begin hammering out legislative reforms aimed at preventing the abuse.
Department of Children and Family Services Director Erwin McEwen and public health chief Dr. Damon Arnold said through aides that the preliminary talks centered on beefing up the number of health inspectors overseeing hospitals and providing them with more authority to investigate abuse allegations and to levy fines for patient safety breaches.
McEwen also seeks reforms that would allow DCFS to hold institutions responsible for neglect when inadequate staffing levels or other management problems contributed to the attacks.
"No one in this discussion accepts the status quo," DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said. "While it's still too early to discuss specific proposals, legislation will come from this effort."
An initial teleconference meeting Wednesday, which included representatives of Gov. Pat Quinn, came in response to a Sept. 22 Tribune article detailing at least 18 cases of reported rape or sexual abuse of juveniles in the last two years at a handful of prominent Chicago-area centers.
Hospitals sometimes admitted aggressive and dangerous juveniles, then failed to properly supervise them, or didn't notify police and state regulators of attacks, government records and interviews show. And DCFS, tasked with protecting children from abuse, frequently conducted only cursory investigations.
The Illinois Department of Public Health, which licenses and inspects medical facilities, was able to file reports and cite patient-safety deficiencies in only three of the cases.
"It's a huge problem. The hospitals get paid a lot of money to provide treatment and keep kids safe," said ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf, who represents juvenile state wards as part of a court-monitored consent decree with DCFS. The public health department needs not only more inspectors, Wolf said, but also "independent, clinically sophisticated investigators" to help uncover systematic shortfalls in treatment and safety that may have contributed to the incidents.
DCFS and the public health department both concede that they are hamstrung by inadequate resources.
"By and large, we think we have the right laws on the books; we just don't have the right tools to enforce them," said public health Deputy Director David Carvalho, who is part of the new interagency group that will draft legislation.
Carvalho suggested that the legislation would likely include a modest, per-bed hospital license fee to pay for hiring new facility inspectors, as well as the authority to impose fines on hospitals. The state currently can only enforce the ultimate penalty of revoking a hospital's license for safety infractions.
The group also will seek ways to better integrate the investigative work of DCFS and public health inspectors when abuse allegations do arise.
Among the facilities where alleged rapes or abuse were reported were Chicago Lakeshore Hospital on the North Side, Hartgrove Hospital on the West Side, Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park and Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center on the Northwest Side.
None of the hospitals would comment on the potential legislation, and they have declined to discuss specific cases of alleged abuse, citing medical privacy laws. But some of the institutions told the Tribune last month that patient safety is a top priority and that they promptly report abuse allegations while dealing with an often difficult and unpredictable population.
The alleged victims — all under age 18 and some as young as 7 — were juveniles with serious mental illness who were admitted in crisis to the taxpayer-financed institutions. In the 18 cases reported since July 2008, all but four of the alleged victims were wards of the state with traumatic histories of abuse and neglect, government records show.
Overall, the cases uncovered by the newspaper involved five reported rapes and nine reports of sexual abuse such as molestation. In the four remaining cases, hospital or government authorities labeled the sex "consensual" — although that is a serious violation of standard clinical practice and DCFS policies. The juveniles involved in those "consensual" cases were as young as 12, records show.
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