AZ mental hospital oversight committee claims officials blocking them from doing work

A special oversight board created to look into abuse and human rights issues for patients at the Arizona state mental hospital is being blocked from doing its work by state officials, according to several members.

“A patient died. There are patients who are being mistreated. There are patients who are suffering because of understaffing, and we can’t discuss that,” said Sharon Ashcroft, a member of the Arizona State Hospital Human Rights Committee.

There are five human right committees (HRC) in Arizona – one for different regions of the state and another specifically for the state hospital. The HRCs are oversight boards given their authority by the state legislature.

Several members of the state hospital HRC testified before the Senate Health Committee on February 26. They gave blistering statements and accused state hospital officials of preventing them from doing their work.

Watch the hearing. Testimony about the Arizona State Hospital begins at the 1:04 mark

“The hospital will not acknowledge our power or duties,” said Rae Hopf, a committee member who also works as an advocate for people with mental illness.

Monthly Meetings Accomplish Little

The hospital’s HRC meets on the first Thursday of every month. The ABC15 Investigators showed up for the April meeting unannounced to witness the committee’s work.

We were not allowed to videotape the meeting.

Even though state statutes and records show HRCs are cleared to review confidential information and make on-site visits, the members were agitated because they have not been able to make a single site visit or talk to patients since starting their work more than a year ago.

“We are stuck on a big Ferris wheel and some of us feel like getting off,” said HRC member Mary Lou Brncik.

At the meeting a hospital official said allowing the committee to visit and speak to patients would violate privacy laws.

In frustration, one member did quit unexpectedly at the meeting. He said it’s become “too difficult” and that the hospital is “not willing to help.”

Officials have repeatedly declined or ignored requests for comment or interviews regarding ABC15’s ongoing investigation into the Arizona State Hospital .

Our stories have exposed a startling number of patients have escaped from the hospital, an extreme level of violence, and a lack of care and treatment that put patients and staff at risk.

Problems Persist, Another Death

Every month, HRC members said they are provided a summary of incident and accident reports that were taken at the state hospital. One member told the Senate that there’s an “average of 150 to 175” a month.

They also testified that they continue to see dozens of assaults a month and patients are constantly able to harm themselves and others. Members also raised serious concerns about one patient’s horrific death.

Christopher Blackwell died after the hospital failed to properly provide him with medical care and supervision. He was supposed to be on constant watch to prevent him from swallowing dangerous objects. Doctors found multiple foreign objects lodged in his stomach, according to a notice of claim filed by Blackwell’s family. Objects that hospital officials promised his mother had been removed or had passed .

The ABC15 Investigators have also learned about another patient’s death. A woman unexpectedly died at the state hospital two weeks ago. Officials are refusing to release any information about her death and decided not to conduct an autopsy.

“When we did try to address patients with multiple incident reports, the (Chief Medical Officer) came and basically shut us down and told us it was not our right to talk about that,” said member Jim Gillcoatt before the Senate.  

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dbiscobing@abc15.com .

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