By Spencer Hunt and Debra Jasper
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In Ohio, people suspected of striking, kicking or stealing from mentally retarded victims rarely get punished.
Sometimes, they get paid off.
Since 1997, the state has paid 18 workers more than $150,000 to leave institutions where they were suspected of abusing or neglecting mentally retarded residents, The Cincinnati Enquirer has learned.
Officials were so determined to get rid of a Guernsey County worker suspected of hitting a mentally retarded woman in the head with a shoe that they paid him $75,000.
State officials say they can't always fire the workers because civil service rules protect them with lengthy appeals.
The payoffs are one result of a statewide law enforcement system that routinely fails to investigate and punish those who abuse and neglect mentally retarded citizens.
''I put one person in jail in my entire career,'' says Ken Ritchey, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation. ''It was an egregious case, and even then the only reason we got him is he confessed.''
As a new task force appointed by Gov. Bob Taft attempts to crack down on abusers, an Enquirer investigation finds that suspected crimes against the mentally retarded take low priority at all levels of enforcement:
The Ohio State Highway Patrol investigated 139 cases of deaths or suspected crimes in state institutions in 1999 and 2000, but made only three arrests. Every case was dismissed. The institutions housed 2,000 people.
The Ohio Attorney General's Office can't say how many suspected crimes it investigates at private nursing and group homes for 9,000 people. It knows only that probes resulted in 13 indictments and 10 convictions in the past five years.
Local police and sheriffs' deputies are supposed to investigate suspected crimes at private facilities, too. But by the time local authorities are called, cases are often old, crime scenes are clean or evidence is sketchy.
Even when cases are thoroughly investigated, convictions depend on 88 county prosecutors whose skills and resources vary wildly. Prosecutors often refuse to take on cases, claiming impaired witnesses make suspected crimes too tough to pursue.
Columbus Detective Monique Shafer, the only officer in any large Ohio city assigned solely to investigate crimes against mentally retarded victims, agrees that cases are hard: Victims forget facts, their testimony is easily discredited and often they can't speak at all.
Still, she says, abusers can be punished.
''Police and prosecutors need to take these crimes more seriously,'' she says. ''The cases are prosecutable, but a lot of times they just blow them off.''
The Ohio Department of Mental Retardation acknowledges that reports of deaths, abuse, neglect, hospitalizations and other serious incidents have quadrupled in the past four years.
Incident reports are up -- to more than 14,000 last year -- at all levels of the mental retardation system. Officials say that's because nursing homes, group homes and county workshops are doing a better job reporting incidents to the state.
But abuse isn't always reported to police, as required by law. And the outcomes of cases are spread across 88 counties -- if they're investigated at all, the department acknowledges.
''If you have 5,000 abuse cases, 5,000 abuse cases should have been reported to police,'' Mr. Ritchey says. ''Whether every one was, I can't tell you.''
Mental Retardation officials do keep details about cases they handle involving allegations of abuse and neglect at the 12 state institutions.
Records show that since 1997, the department fired or suspended 66 workers for suspected abuse or neglect.
The department paid $154,500 to get rid of 18 workers it first tried to fire. The workers, employed at 10 institutions, were suspected of misconduct including kicking, striking or shoving residents or dumping them out of beds or wheelchairs.
Once they were fired, all 18 either filed appeals with the State Personnel Board or grievances with their union, the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.
In one case, after an arbitrator ordered a worker reinstated, the state paid him cash to get him to leave. In the other 17 cases, the state paid off workers before arbitration to save time and legal expense or because the job disputes dragged on so long.
The largest amount -- $75,000 in January 2000 -- went to Brian Hicks, a worker who had been fired from his job at the Cambridge Developmental Center in Guernsey County, about three hours east of Cincinnati.
Mental Retardation officials say Mr. Hicks struck a mentally retarded woman in the head with a shoe during an outing to a department store.
Mr. Hicks was indicted in Guernsey County on a felony assault charge but pleaded no contest to a reduced misdemeanor charge of ''failure to provide for a functionally impaired person.''
He was fined $100 and sentenced to 15 days in jail, with time suspended.
While the court case was pending, Mr. Hicks filed a grievance with the union to get his job back. After his conviction, an arbitrator said the firing was justified. But when Mr. Hicks appealed, a judge said the arbitrator shouldn't have considered the conviction. A second arbitator subsequently said Mr. Hicks should be rehired.
More than three years after Mr. Hicks was first fired, the state opted instead to let him resign with back pay as long as he agreed not to seek another job at any institution caring for the mentally retarded.
''This case illustrates the worst-case scenario of what can happen,'' Mr. Ritchey says. He says the state settled for so much money because, ''I would not bring this person back.''
Mr. Hicks, who now works at a basket-making factory near Columbus, says he shook the shoe at the resident but never hit her with it. He says he pleaded no contest only because he couldn't afford lawyers' fees.
'We've drawn the line'
Other payments to abuse suspects ranged from $500 to $12,000.
In March 2001, the state paid $12,000 to Phil Lambes, another worker who was fired from the Cambridge Developmental Center. Officials said he held a resident on the ground with his arm behind his back in an unapproved restraint.
Mr. Lambes knew the resident was ''hurt and bleeding'' but
wouldn't let him up, a Mental Retardation department record states. The resident suffered scratches and bruises.
Mr. Lambes filed a grievance to get his job back. Rather than pursue arbitration, the state allowed him to resign and gave him back pay. In return, Mr. Lambes agreed not to try to get a job again at any state institution for the mentally retarded.
He could not be located for comment.
In another case, the state in July 1999 paid $5,000 to Verlin Smith, a worker at Springview Developmental Center in Clark County. Mental Retardation officials say they fired Mr. Smith after he struck a mentally retarded resident on the forehead.
Mr. Smith filed a grievance and the state settled, allowing him to resign in return for his agreement to never seek another job with the department.
Mr. Smith told the Enquirer that he didn't want to talk about the case.
Just because a worker settles with the state doesn't mean he or she is guilty, says Monty Blanton, an official with Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. The union represents 2,000 workers in the mental retardation system.
''A settlement is the state's admission they don't have the evidence to move forward,'' Mr. Blanton says. ''Instead of going through the financial expense of arbitration, they settle.''
Mr. Ritchey says the state only fires people if it is sure abuse occurred. But he says arbitration and police investigations at times take so long that witnesses move away or are too impaired to remember details.
He says the department then has little choice but to give workers cash to go away or give them jobs where they won't have contact with residents.
''We've drawn the line with some people I've said will never return to work,'' he says. ''This is an issue. If you know how to solve it, I'd love to know.''
Handprint on a chest
The highway patrol is supposed to investigate all deaths and suspected crimes at state institutions.
But patrol records show that few investigations end in criminal charges. In 1999 and 2000, the highway patrol opened 139 cases and arrested three people on assault charges. All three charges eventually were dropped.
One of those cases shows how investigations can encounter so many hurdles that they eventually collapse.
Dennis Green, a worker at the Apple Creek Developmental Center in Wayne County, was charged with patient neglect in December 1999. Other workers said they heard Mr. Green yelling and then found the resident with scratches and a fading handprint on his chest.
Police discovered that Mr. Green had been reprimanded four times for neglect of duty and suspended five other times from 1990 to 1995 -- once for pushing a resident down on a couch by his neck and then pulling him off the couch by his ankles.
Mr. Green denied physically abusing anyone. And John Williams, a Wayne County prosecutor, refused to take the case because he didn't believe the alleged assault was a felony.
Misdemeanor assault charges were subsequently filed, but they were dropped three months later. A highway patrol officer interviewed more witnesses in an attempt to have the charges refiled, but that, too, was unsuccessful.
Marie Moore, a municipal court prosecutor, put an end to the case in an August 2000 note to the trooper: ''No charges will be re-filed. Too many obstacles to overcome.''
Mr. Green, meanwhile, is back at work at Apple Creek.
''He's in the same job, on the same shift, but he's assigned to different clients,'' says Robert Jennings, Mental Retardation department spokesman.
He says officials had no choice. They tried to fire him, but were overruled by an arbitrator because there were no eyewitnesses. Mr. Green was one of 23 workers the department tried to fire for suspected abuse or neglect but who got their jobs back after they filed grievances, department records show.
Mr. Green says he was wrongly accused. ''It took almost two years to go through this process, all over a fading handprint,'' he says.
While state police tried to pursue charges in some cases, records show they often suspect criminal acts but don't make arrests.
Police didn't arrest anyone at the Gallipolis Center in April 2000 when $699 turned up missing from four residents' personal funds. Nor was anyone charged five months later when an employee admitted ''borrowing'' an undisclosed amount of money from a cancer patient's fund-raiser.
In January 2000, a resident of the Youngstown Developmental Center in Mahoning County was taken to the hospital with a ''digestive ailment'' that turned out to be five broken ribs. Police investigated the case as an assault but made no arrests.
The highway patrol won't discuss specifics of its cases.
Capt. Robert Booker, second in command of the investigative services unit, acknowledges that the lack of prosecutions is ''disconcerting from a statistical standpoint.''
But he says officers have no control over prosecutors' decisions to pursue cases. At least 23 times, county prosecutors declined to take on cases pushed by police, highway patrol records show.
Capt. Booker says patrol supervisors also close cases if there isn't enough evidence.
''Sometimes you're dealing with people who have difficulty communicating,'' Mr. Booker says. ''The lack of corroborating witnesses also makes it difficult if it's a one-on-one type of crime.''
Highway patrol reports also reveal little about how people die in institutions. Several reports on 17 deaths at the Gallipolis Developmental Center were wrapped up with just one line: Deaths were due to ''apparent natural causes.''
But records do show that little happens when deaths aren't immediately reported to police, as required by department policy to ensure that foul play or mistakes aren't involved.
A highway patrol report shows that Kim Suesz' heart failed on May 19, 2000, after three staff members held her down at the Southwest Developmental Center in Clermont County. Ms. Suesz, a 35-year-old mentally retarded resident, had slapped an employee.
Workers said they immediately let her go when she told them she couldn't breathe. Her lips ''were turning blue. She took a couple of breaths and her eyes rolled back,'' a highway patrol report shows. She was pronounced dead about an hour later at Clermont Mercy Hospital.
Records show that the institution didn't call the highway patrol until three days after Ms. Suesz died. Center officials said a worker on duty was new and didn't know he was supposed to call the patrol.
Four months later, the trooper and assistant Clermont County Prosecutor Darrell Hawkins closed the case, saying there was no foul play.
Mr. Hawkins says he doesn't remember Ms. Suesz' death but says a police investigation is limited if the scene of the death is more than three days old.
''Whatever scene may or may not have been there would not have been the same as the day she passed away,'' Mr. Hawkins says. ''That doesn't mean there was anything suspicious.''
Patrol not notified
In some cases, the highway patrol isn't called at all.
In December 2000, Mental Retardation officials fired Cathy White-Moore for allegedly hitting a client on the back of the head at the Columbus Developmental Center. The institution's internal police had sent records of their investigation directly to prosecutors -- bypassing the highway patrol altogether.
Ms. White-Moore was convicted of disorderly conduct in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and ordered to pay court costs and take an anger-management course. She was put on probation for a year.
Jim Nibert, head of in-house police at the state institutions, first told the Enquirer that his officers report all cases to the highway patrol, as required by department policy. He says the patrol is called in to avoid potential conflicts of interest that come when an agency investigates itself.
But when questioned about Ms. White-Moore's case, Mr. Nibert acknowledged that in-house police may ignore policy.
''There's some issues for our police officers where they feel they are demeaned by having to turn cases over to the state highway patrol,'' Mr. Nibert says.
Sometimes, he says, troopers don't come when called. Other times, the highway patrol gives permission to in-house officers to handle cases, he says.
It's impossible to know how often that happens, though, because records are buried in filing cabinets spread across Ohio's 12 institutions, Mr. Nibert says.
Highway patrol spokesman Lt. Gary Lewis says he has no idea how often institutions handle their own cases, either.
''We don't know unless they tell us,'' Lt. Lewis says. ''We can only be accountable for what we're told.''
Can't see problems
There's even less accountability in the state's 1,300 private nursing homes and group homes.
Caregivers there are required by law to refer suspected abuse and neglect to either the local police or sheriff, who can also call in the Attorney General's office.
But the Mental Retardation department doesn't know whether cases are reported to the police or which law enforcement agencies get them. Police don't track cases involving the mentally retarded, either.
Attorney General Betty Montgomery says her office might consider tracking such cases.
''It's an idea that has merit,'' she says. ''If you don't look at what kinds of cases are out there, you can't see what the problems are that need to be addressed.''
Following an open-records request by the Enquirer, the Attorney General's Office did find 13 indictments and 10 convictions from investigations in the past five years.
In one case, the Attorney General's Office learned only through an unrelated investigation that a worker at a Columbus group home was suspected of tying up a mentally retarded man with wire.
The man told investigators he was afraid of the worker, Robert Jones. Mr. Jones was indicted in April 1999 on a felony count of patient abuse after admitting to police that he threw the resident against a wall. He said the resident was afraid of him and ''knows I mean business.''
Mr. Jones died in a car wreck before the case could go to trial.
Two other indictments on abuse and assault charges resulted from an Attorney General's probe at Hamilton Center, a Butler County workshop for the mentally retarded. It employs 50 workers who watch over about 220 mentally retarded people during the day.
Jamie Ray Puckett pleaded no contest last July to bending one person's fingers back and punching another mentally retarded person in the chest. He served 60 days of a six-month jail sentence, was placed on five years probation and ordered to take an anger-management course.
Timothy Lee Ivers pleaded not guilty to charges that he assaulted a mentally retarded person in a bathroom. He goes on trial
The Attorney General's Office cites the Hamilton Center investigation as a success.
But the handling of four other employees involved in the investigation shows that county Mental Retardation boards work out their own deals to get rid of suspected problem workers.
Spokeswoman Pam Long says the Butler County Board of Mental Retardation fired three workers and is considering settling with two of them, who appealed to the union. She wouldn't say if cash settlements may be made.
Another worker was suspended, but returned to work with duties away from residents.
Even when police put together a strong case, their efforts can be stymied if county or city prosecutors decline to take it to court.
In many cases, the evidence is too circumstantial to win a conviction, prosecutors tell the Enquirer. Workers are often reluctant to testify against co-workers, and victims are often too impaired to remember relevant facts.
Crime scenes yield few clues unless they're inspected right away, and in cases of physical abuse, wounds are usually healed by the time witnesses get to court, law enforcement officials say.
Mr. Ritchey says he's personally asked prosecutors to take abusers before grand juries, but they sometimes refuse.
''They recognize there are no witnesses or the client can't communicate,'' he says. ''To be honest about it, most jurisdictions don't have the resources or manpower to deal with that. They tell us their plate is pretty full with (crimes) in the community.''
Mr. Ritchey says prosecutors and police prefer to focus on cases they have a better chance of winning. Suspected crimes against mentally retarded victims, especially if there are no permanent injuries, don't ''have the same weight as the drug crimes and the thefts and the rapes and the other things that are occurring.''
But prosecutors also agree that cases involving mentally retarded victims aren't always vigorously pursued, either.
''These cases require more work than average cases, and sometimes it's difficult for prosecutors to put the extra time in that's necessary,'' says Stephen McIntosh, a prosecutor for Columbus.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen says prosecutors and their staffs need more training to understand how the mental retardation system works.
''My office has 20 victims' advocates, but we don't have one who specializes in the mentally challenged and mentally disabled,'' Mr. Allen says. ''It's something that I'm frankly just thinking about as I sit here.''
Vinton County Prosecutor Timothy P. Gleeson says he would just like to have the funding, staff and other services that urban prosecutors take for granted.
As law enforcement starts to grapple with these issues, Mr. Ritchey hopes the governor's new task force will give prosecutors more tools to convict abusers.
Gov. Bob Taft appointed the task force, which will be made up of prosecutors, coroners, judges and law enforcement officers, last month. It was announced one day after the Enquirer identified 12 mentally retarded people who died under questionable circumstances inside a state system that's supposed to protect them.
The Enquirer reported that 80 to 120 deaths each year are avoidable, and that the mental retardation system routinely fails to prevent abuse and neglect.
Mr. Taft and Mr. Ritchey say disabled people should be granted some of the same protections afforded children, such as smaller, less intimidating court settings and more time to testify.
''What we're always up against is getting people to report things, getting them investigated, getting them prosecuted and getting convictions,'' Mr. Ritchey says.
''I'm hoping when we are done we treat victims with disabilities no different than anybody else who gets harmed.''