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Mental center abuse records might become public

By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – A task force says it will look into whether records of abuse and neglect at mental health institutions in Missouri should be made public.

Investigative reports of abuse allegations are currently closed to the public, which means they're kept secret even from employees being accused of wrongdoing and from other families with relatives at institutions.

A task force headed by Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder decided Thursday to look into whether lawmakers should vote to open those records. Generally speaking, Kinder says that shedding light on allegations helps reduce problems.

Opening the records would require passage of legislation by the Legislature.

Earlier this year, the Post-Dispatch reported that nearly 2,287 cases of confirmed abuse and neglect occurred in state supervised homes for the mentally ill from 2000-2005, including 323 that involved injuries. During that time, 21 deaths were linked to abuse or neglect, the paper reported.

Also Thursday, the Department of Mental Health said an independent contractor was reviewing about 200 documents that reference various incidents at the Higginsville Habilitation Center between 2002-2004 to determine if previously unreported cases of abuse or neglect occurred.

Department Director Dorn Schuffman said the review was prompted after an employee at the facility came to him with information about a specific incident. During that investigation, additional information was provided by staff members "indicating that a significant number of incidents may not have been reported," the department said in a news release.

At the time, the department said most allegations were to be investigated by facility staff. Since then, all investigations have been centralized under a department-level unit.

Under current practice, mental health employees immediately are suspended with pay when allegations of abuse are made against them. They remain off the job as long as it takes to investigate the report anywhere from a week to several months, said Mary Tansey, the department's general counsel.

In the meantime, "employees are left really in the dark as to whom has made the allegations and the substance of the allegations," she said. When investigations are complete, state law allows those reports to be released to the alleged victims or their guardians, but does not include other members of the general public on that list.

Tansey said an internal mental health task force also is looking at whether the secrecy is necessary and is likely to recommend the reports be opened up.

Department of Social Services Director Gary Sherman, a member of the mental health task force, also spoke in favor of opening up as many records as possible. He said making public investigative reports of abuse allegations can help hold state employees accountable.

The mental health task force is scheduled to meet again July 11.

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