Idaho police probe abuse reports at state-run home for disabled

File photo of the Idaho State School and Hospital in Nampa, Idaho.

Kerry Maloney / AP

BOISE, Idaho -- Police and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare are investigating allegations that staffers physically and psychologically abused and neglected some residents at a state-run treatment center for people with severe disabilities.
    
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced the investigation Wednesday, saying the allegations appeared to be focused on employees assigned to just one unit of the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa. Seven of the center's 25 residents were allegedly abused.
    
The department didn't release details of the allegations, but said local police have been notified and the employees implicated in the complaint have been placed on paid leave. The Nampa police department also confirmed Wednesday that it has five active criminal investigations involving accusations of staff-on-resident abuse and neglect at the center.
    
"These actions go against everything we stand for and are being treated with the utmost urgency," DHW Director Russ Barron said in a prepared statement. "The safety of our residents is our highest concern and priority, especially in this challenging environment."
    
Barron said he is "extremely disappointed" that some staffers haven't followed department procedures designed to ensure the safety and dignity of residents.
    
"They will be disciplined, including dismissal if the circumstances are warranted," Barron said.
    
The center typically houses people with severe intellectual disabilities who are in crisis or who have significant behavioral challenges. The center's goal is to provide treatment and care for residents so they can be moved to a less-restrictive setting, such as a community-based group home, but some of the residents have been there for years.
    
Department officials were made aware of the problems in June, when an employee at the treatment center reported that they had concerns about resident safety, said Health and Welfare Department spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr.
    
"This is pretty upsetting for us because it really goes against the core values of the agency," Forbing-Orr said. "Resident safety is our number one priority."
    
The investigation is campus-wide, she said, though the allegations do focus on one section of a building. That building has security cameras in the hallways -- though not in residents' rooms -- and that footage is being reviewed, Forbing-Orr said.
    
Like Idaho's other state hospitals, the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center has a high rate of staff injuries, in part because of the challenges posed by some residents' behaviors.
    
"The people who are still there (as residents) have some pretty severe behavioral challenges, and sometimes the behaviors can be pretty intense," Forbing-Orr said. "We have rigorous protocols and procedures for how our staff are supposed to interact with the residents there. Some of the complaints are that they didn't follow our procedures."
    
The allegations include physical abuse, which the department defines as actions intended to cause pain or bodily harm, as well as psychological abuse, which can include humiliation, harassment, intimidation or other mistreatment. The complaints also allege neglect, which the department says can include a failure to provide goods and services because of carelessness or inattention.
    
Residents' families have been notified of the investigation, Forbing-Orr said.
    
Formerly called the Idaho State School and Hospital, the center was the state's only institution for the developmentally disabled for years. In 2009 state lawmakers began an unsuccessful push to close the facility amid budget cuts and a renewed focus on community-based care for those living with disabilities.
    
The facility was built in 1919 and once had more than 1,000 clients living on a 600-acre campus that resembled a working farm. Many of the residents were mentally ill, medically fragile or had behavioral problems in addition to developmental delays.
    
Today, the center houses 25 residents and is staffed by 109 full- and part-time employees.