GOP lawmakers in Illinois call for hearings in the wake of abuse at Choate
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Lee Enterprises, along with Capitol News Illinois.
All 59 Republican members of the Illinois General Assembly are calling for legislative hearings on a state-run mental health center in rural southern Illinois, citing findings of a culture of abuse, cover-ups and poor patient care from a monthslong investigative series by Lee Enterprises Midwest, Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica.
Late last week, the members sent a letter to key Democratic committee chairs in the Illinois House and Senate asking them to schedule a bicameral public hearing on the facility.
The districts that include and surround Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center are represented by Republicans, but as the minority party in both chambers, they lack the authority to convene a legislative hearing.
On Thursday morning, several downstate GOP lawmakers reiterated their call to action at a news conference at the Capitol. Rep. Paul Jacobs, R-Pomona, whose district includes Choate, and others stressed that they want to see conditions fixed.
“The residents there can’t suffer. The most profound developmental and mental disabilities in the state can’t suffer. They have to be treated well,” Jacobs said.
In addition to the in-person hearing, the lawmakers requested access to high-ranking Illinois Department of Human Services officials who oversee the facility, including Secretary Grace Hou.
The facility is one of 13 psychiatric hospitals and developmental centers operated by IDHS across the state. Choate is located in the rural community of Anna near the Missouri border about 120 miles southeast of St. Louis. The 270-bed facility serves people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, including people diagnosed with “profound” disabilities and some who are nonverbal.
Since September, the news organizations have detailed startling cases of patient beatings, neglect and poor medical care, as well as coordinated efforts by staff to cover up patient mistreatment. A story published this month disclosed that patients with pica, a disorder in which people feel compelled to swallow inedible objects, had been forced to dig through their own feces to recover the items.
Over a 10-year period ending in 2021, the IDHS Office of the Inspector General fielded more than 1,500 allegations of abuse and neglect at Choate. And the state’s attorney in Union County, where the facility is located, has filed charges against at least 48 people — both patients and employees — since 2015.
Several GOP lawmakers stressed that while they want to see improvement at the facility, they want Choate to remain open. The call for hearings comes after Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker reiterated his position last week on the situation at Choate: Fix it or close it.
Some parents of longtime Choate residents have expressed concerns about where their loved ones would go if the facility closes, including state Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, whose brother lives at Choate with more than 230 other residents.
"We don’t have facilities to house them up in other parts of the state,” Tracy said. “They have the type of care that is needed by the population that resides there. As I mentioned, many of these have tried group homes, ourselves included. It didn’t work for the specific needs of my brother and several others or many others that resided there.”
Closure would also mean the loss of state jobs in far southern Illinois, an economically depressed area largely represented by Republicans.
Pritzker’s threats of closure didn’t sit well with Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, whose district neighbors Choate, and she called on the governor to take a more active role in finding solutions.
“When the governor says, ‘They have to fix it or I’m going to close the facility’ — he’s ‘they,’” Bryant said. “So he’s the one who has to fix it. And fixing it might mean a total and complete shake-up of the administration.”
A statement from the governor’s office said he is closely monitoring the situation and will move forward on additional reforms in the coming weeks.
In addition to the request for a hearing, the lawmakers outlined a series of steps they’d like to see immediately implemented to improve conditions. Those include the installation of cameras in common interior areas, the appointment of a new director or assistant director with expertise in turning around troubled facilities and the hiring of at least 50 new front-line and health care workers at Choate. Currently, the facility employs around 500 and has approximately 80 vacancies.
Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, whose southern Illinois district includes the state-run Murray Developmental Center, has also introduced legislation that would allow authorities to report negative findings against workers who help cover up abuse to a statewide registry, barring them from working in a health care setting in the future. Peter Neumer, the IDHS inspector general, called for this change in law last month after the news organizations reported on three Choate workers who were fired for similar misconduct — but who remain eligible to work with vulnerable populations in other health care settings. Meier also introduced legislation mandating that OIG investigations be completed within 30 days, allowing IDHS to fire employees found culpable of abuse or neglect.
In one case featured in the reporting, in which eight workers were accused of abuse or failure to report the beating of a developmentally disabled man, the OIG investigation took eight years to complete. The investigation was suspended while the case was under criminal investigation by the Illinois State Police and during a subsequent criminal prosecution.
Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee, said she’d received the Republicans’ letter and is considering next steps with her Democratic colleagues. She also said she’d read the news organizations’ reports about conditions at Choate and found them “horrifying.” But she stopped short of joining the call for a special joint hearing, saying that the current committee process may be most expedient for hearing bills and concerns about the facility. Regardless, Gillespie said, problems at Choate will be addressed by the General Assembly.
Gillespie noted that improving conditions at the facility has also been named a top priority for the bipartisan Illinois Senate Women’s Caucus, which she co-chairs with Tracy.
“The knee-jerk reaction might be to shut it down, but then it becomes where do these residents go? And so we can’t do anything knee-jerk that’s going to put the residents in continued or worse danger,” Gillespie said.
IDHS has not disputed any of the news organizations’ findings.
In a statement, IDHS maintained that Choate employees provide crucial care to vulnerable patients and that those who violate the standard of care will be held accountable.
IDHS has implemented reforms at the facility including additional training, increased security, surveillance cameras for the exterior and common area, increased security and management presence in living areas, and physical improvements. The center will undergo a review by the federal monitor Equip for Equality and the OIG, as well as working with the Illinois State Police.
IDHS has also brought in an onsite liaison to report to Hou and the director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities..
“We take the longstanding problems at Choate very seriously and remain committed to providing good, quality care for residents and patients at the facility. We will continue to work with families, staff, residents, and other stakeholders to carry out the mission of helping people with disabilities and others in need across Illinois,” the statement said.
The Republicans speaking at the news conference Thursday agreed that the problems are long-standing and span multiple administrations of governors from both parties, but they called for immediate solutions.
AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents some Choate employees, said in a statement following the news conference that it welcomes the support of “anyone of good will who wants to work to improve” the facility. The union said it has for years urged legislators and IDHS to increase staffing, expand training and invest in maintenance of the buildings.
“It’s regrettable that it took disturbing media reports of past misconduct to underscore the need for improvements at Choate, but the wrongful actions of a few cannot overshadow the deep commitment of the overwhelming majority of employees to Choate’s residents and to making the facility the best it can be,” the statement said.