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Unsafe Haven: The Inside Story

Last year, Terrance Johnson was hired to work on the adolescent ward of the Charter Pines psychiatric hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina. There, he worked with youths whose problems ranged from mild depression to psychosis. He was responsible for watching over these patients minute to minute. It was a demanding job.

It was especially demanding for the 27-year-old Johnson. Equipped with a tiny hidden camera, he was secretly investigating allegations of improper conduct at the hospital.

The story actually begins months earlier, when CBS began an investigation of Charter Behavioral Health Systems, the largest chain of psychiatric hospitals in the country.

The company, which has 91 hospitals in 32 states across the country, is the nation's largest chain of psychiatric hospitals. It takes in more than $300 million in taxpayer money annually. About 120,000 patients are admitted to Charter every year, about 35,000 of them children and adolescents.

In more than 20 Charter hospitals, CBS found evidence of dangerous conditions, falsified records, and doctors who barely knew their patients.

But the project's producers wanted a close-up look. They discussed their project with Johnson, who had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a master's degree in social work. Johnson, who was deeply interested in the proper treatment of children, agreed to apply for a job as a low-level worker, known as a mental health technician (MHT).

Johnson's first priority at all times was to do his job with the patients. He filmed what he thought was evidence of wrongdoing or dangerous conditions.

Johnson was eminently qualified to be an MHT. He not only has a master's degree in social work, but is also a licensed social worker. In fact, when he applied to Charter Pines, he left some of his experience off his resume.

Getting hired was not difficult. Johnson applied, and was asked for an interview. The interview, he says, lasted for five minutes at most. The interviewer told him that the hospital needed "somebody big." Johnson, who is 6' 2" and solidly built, was hired. His pay: $8.35 an hour.

A few weeks later, Johnson reported to Charter Pines. Although he has perfect vision, he wore a pair of glasses. Concealed in the bridge of the thick black frames was a tiny camera. Affixed to the temples was a band to keep the glasses around his neck when he wasn't wearing them; inside this band was a wire, which snaked down his torso and connected to a switch in his pants pocket. When he wanted to activate the camera, he flipped the switch. He also wore a videotape recorder in his pants. "It was very, very uncomfortable," Johnson remembers.

During the eight weeks that he worked at the hospital, no one suspected that he was taping. (He did have one close call: "One of my last days, somebody touched it, and said 'Oh, what you got on under there?' I was like, 'Uhhhh, bac support.' The person said 'Oh yea, one of those ones you can put stuff in, huh.' I said 'uh yeah'.")

Contrary to Charter's own rules, Johnson was put on the ward with no training. In talking to his colleagues, he found that this was not unusual. Most of his co-workers had received little training. Many had not had a single day of training. "There's no training," one co-worker told Johnson, who was recording at the time. "Like I didn't get any kind of orientation, per se, you know what I mean? It's just, 'okay, well, you're working with us now.'"

In his first week, Johnson was asked by the nurse in charge to do an initial assessment of a new patient. He declined.

On his third day, the nurse in charge asked him to hold a group session for children. He declined, and another MHT stepped in. She showed the group the movie Independence Day, Afterward, she asked the group if they believed in aliens. Then she asked them a hypothetical question: Given the choice between saving their own life or that of their pet, which would they choose?

"The kids spend all day with the mental health technicians," he says. "They had been working at UPS, at Outback Steakhouse. You're paying a thousand-some dollars a day for an eight-dollar an hour mental health technician to run the group for your kid."

These same MHTs also assessed the kids' behavior and recorded notes in the patients' charts.

His supervising nurse also told him that she emphasized the negative when writing her evaluations. Why? So that insurance companies would continue to pay for patients' treatment. "Because, that's how they get paid," the nurse told Johnson, as his hidden camera rolled. "This is what they told me... It's a business thing."

Unsafe Haven: Update
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Produced by David Kohn

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