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Feds looking into another state-run hab center

By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – Federal investigators are looking into a state-run mental health center in suburban St. Louis where at least two patients have died in the past couple of years.

The Department of Justice would not say Monday what prompted its investigation of the Northwest Habilitation Center for the developmentally disabled, explaining that the review is ongoing.

A section within the Justice Department focused on the constitutional rights of people living in state-run institutions is handling the matter. The unit looks at areas such as living conditions, safety, staffing levels, and whether residents' care and treatment follows accepted practices in the field, such as providing care in the least restrictive setting.

"They're looking to find if there's evidence to suggest there's a pattern of potential violations," department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson, in Washington, D.C., said Monday.

The department notified the state in late May that it was conducting an investigation, many of which include on-site visits, interviews and document reviews and can take several months.

The superintendent of the center, Jim Finch, referred questions through an assistant to the Missouri Mental Health Department, which oversees the state's six mental health centers. The department said Monday that it was aware of the investigation and would cooperate.

"Given the tragic events that occurred at Northwest Hab Center, certainly looking at issues around client care and safety has been something the state's been very much involved in," department spokesman Bob Bax said. "Department of Justice would also have that same interest."

Federal investigators also recently examined the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in St. Louis and in April released a report deeming that center unsafe.

In that case, the report charged that staff members beat residents with fists, belts and fly swatters. The report also said the staff was too small, lacked adequate training and allowed "inappropriate sexual contact" among residents.

The Northwest Habilitation Center near Overland has about 70 patients. It has received attention for two patient deaths since 2005.

In November 2005, a 24-year-old patient died after swallowing a pen. The man, who wasn't identified, was supposed to be under constant supervision.

Rutherford "Rudy" Wallace, 35, died in March 2006, six days after he was scalded while being bathed by a worker at the center. Two employees were fired because of the death.

Those deaths prompted the Mental Health Department to bring in private consultants to help run the center, and the superintendent is now hired through a contractor, the Columbus Organization, the department said Monday.

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