Politics & Government

Teen alleges psych center therapist was 'touching me in a way I hated,' NC report says

Do you know the signs of child abuse & neglect? Here are 10 things to look for

The South Carolina Department of Social Services lists numerous signs of child abuse and neglect. Here are 10 signs to look for if you suspect a school-aged child is being abused.
Up Next
The South Carolina Department of Social Services lists numerous signs of child abuse and neglect. Here are 10 signs to look for if you suspect a school-aged child is being abused.

In May, a worker at a Union County psychiatric center found a handwritten letter from a 15-year-old patient containing a troubling accusation.

A newly hired therapist, the teen wrote, had asked him why he doesn’t like being touched, state documents show.

“I had shut down completely because he had his hand down touching me in a way I hated,” the letter said. “I was scared to tell someone but I had enough of it.”

A few days later, the therapist was suspended and told there would be an investigation, state records say.

State documents obtained by the Observer provide previously undisclosed details about alleged abuse, faulty treatment and failures at Anderson Health Services.

Officials had shut down most operations at Anderson Health on June 1 after determining the facility endangered the health and safety of patients.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees psychiatric centers, is now moving to revoke the facility’s operating license, according to a June 20 letter the agency sent to Anderson Chief Executive Officer Alfred Owens.

Anderson Health has 10 days to respond to the findings or its operating license will be revoked, the letter said. Owens and attorney Richard Tomberlin, who represents Anderson Health, did not return phone calls seeking comment by the time of publication. Tomberlin previously has said his client disputes the state’s account.

Anderson Health, about 35 miles southeast of Charlotte, is one of 37 psychiatric residential treatment facilities in North Carolina for patients with severe mental and behavioral problems.

The facility opened in September. The newly obtained state reports paint a bleak picture for the nine girls and eight boys who were receiving care.

Patients — teens as young as 13, with histories of physical and sexual abuse, suicide attempts and depression — told investigators they rarely saw their licensed therapist for individual treatment.

Four patients obtained screws, paper clips, and a razor from a pencil sharpener and used them to harm themselves, the records say. In another episode, a patient threw a microwave and wrapped the microwave cord around her neck.

One girl told state investigators she attempted to escape multiple times because patients cut themselves and talked about smoking and taking drugs and staff didn't pay enough attention to her.

“This is very stressful,” she said, according to the report. “They swear, they yell and scream and self harm every day…. I tried talking to staff but they wouldn’t listen.”

‘Exploited for profit’

The state’s findings against Anderson Health mark at least the second time this year officials have disciplined a Charlotte-area treatment facility for children. Patients at Strategic Behavioral Center also alleged abuse and other faulty treatment.

In Anderson’s case, the state last week fined the facility a total of $9,000 for failing to protect patients from harm and other violations, according to the June 20 letter.

Patients stole drugs and obtained a knife, a hammer and a wooden chair leg that was used as a weapon, according to the June 1 report. Staffers gave a patient the wrong anti-psychotic drug and other medicine, used improper restraint holds and failed to adequately treat a girl who needed stitches, the report said.

Corye Dunn, the director of public policy at Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with disabilities, said the alleged problems found at Anderson Health are common in psychiatric centers around the state.

“We’re talking about kids who have significant behavioral health care needs, who were exploited for profit and not given appropriate treatment or even a safe and healthy place to live,” Dunn said. “They experienced abuse and neglect and, in many cases, that abuse and neglect was paid for with our public funds.”

A badge and a gun

State documents portray Anderson workers struggling to provide proper care for mentally ill children.

One residential counselor at the facility “had (a) prison work background” and would wear his gun and badge to the psychiatric facility, records say.

One co-worker told investigators he often had to remind the staff member that the facility was not a detention center.

“He showed a lot of frustration with the clients,” the co-worker said.

State investigators interviewed local police, who were sometimes called to the facility when there was trouble. The officers told investigators that Anderson staffers would “verbally challenge the kids” and were “unaware how to talk to them.”

‘Very, very wrong’

On May 17, according to state records, a patient made another troubling allegation against Anderson Health.

A worker found a letter the patient wrote accusing a therapist of inappropriately touching him, documents say.

The teen, a state report says, said he was questioning whether he should tell someone about what happened.

“This is why I have been so pissed off lately,” he wrote, according to state records. “Something came to my mind and said should I tell somebody?... I'm not trying to get in trouble, it's just he is doing something very very wrong…”

On May 21, state records say, Anderson informed the therapist that he was suspended. The therapist had been on the job less than a month.

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027; Rennie: 704 358-5307