Crazy Behavior

Staff, not inmates, at Brooklyn's biggest psychiatric ward

The Kings County Hospital Center's psychiatric ward, under fire for horrifying conditions, is getting schizoid treatment by state officials. On May 1, the state's Mental Hygiene Legal Service slapped a lawsuit against the Brooklyn hospital for allegedly handcuffing and beating mental patients. And on the same day, inspectors at another state agency, the Office of Mental Health, calmly reissued the psychiatric ward's operating certificate.

While they mentioned problems such as bedbugs and the ward's dilapidated condition, the inspectors did not demand any changes. Instead, they extended the hospital's permit by 18 months, ensuring that it will be at least another year before inspectors return.

Those inspections of the overcrowded psychiatric ward mean nothing anyway, says Beth Haroules, a New York Civil Liberties Union attorney who helped slap the hospital with the lawsuit. "OMH inspections provide a snapshot picture," she says. "When you tell someone you're going to take their picture, they get gussied up and smile for you."

At Kings County Hospital Center, however, getting gussied up can't hide everything. The lawsuit, only the latest to hit the psychiatric unit, accuses some hospital staffers of hurling racial insults and threatening sexual violence against patients-—and patients say they are beaten by batons or injected with Haldol when they complain. Beyond those horrors, hospital security are accused of taunting and provoking patients as a form of entertainment and then sitting back and laughing when fights break out.

Hospital officials hotly deny the charges. "The lurid allegations in the lawsuit are grossly inaccurate, irresponsible, and an affront to the dedicated and caring staff of Kings County Hospital Center," says Alan Aviles, president of Health and Hospital Corporation (HHC), which operates Kings County and 10 other hospitals in the city.

Documents obtained by the Voice reveal a long history of troubles at the public hospital's psychiatric ward. A 2003 audit by the state comptroller's office found unrestricted access to the hospital's $13 million drug supply and concluded "it would be difficult, if not impossible to detect theft or misappropriation." The comptroller noted that the hospital had apparently tried to hide the problem by fixing inventory records. An OMH inspection revealed that one of the hospital's psychiatric programs had failed to obtain clearance from the state Child Abuse Registry for employees who work closely with children.

One problem Aviles does not dispute is overcrowding. In the psych ward's emergency services unit, the number of patients far exceeds the number of beds, forcing many of them to sleep on foam mats, on the floor, or in chairs. "At times, there are no alternatives," says HHC spokesman James Saunders. "We have to house them somewhere until beds become available."

As for the inspections by the Office of Mental Health, that agency's spokeswoman, Jill Daniels, acknowledges that it rarely revokes a hospital's license.

That wouldn't do much good anyway for mentally ill Brooklynites because there's practically no place else for them to go.

And that's still another problem at Kings County's unit: In September 2006, the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities —yet another state agency that oversees mental health facilities—found that Kings County staff were lax about searching for available psychiatric beds throughout the city. Furthermore, the commission found that the hospital had juggled its numbers so the ward's ER unit did not seem overcrowded.

The pressures on the hospital's psychiatric unit would drive anyone nuts: The ward is the largest in the area, says Haroules, and it "is being monitored by an agency with an urgent need to keep it in operation."

The hospital's solution is a new $153 million mental-health facility due to be completed in 2008. But critics remain wary. "It's great that they'll have more space and newer facilities," says Haroules. "But if it's the same people, with the same policies and practices, we'll just end up with all the same problems."

 
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