NEW BALTIMORE, Mich. (WXYZ) — A developmentally disabled woman was repeatedly punched by another patient in June, according to police records. The alleged assault marks at least the fourth case of abuse inside Harbor Oaks Hospital to trigger charges since last year.
At the same time, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is considering overseeing how the hospital investigates complaints of patient abuse and neglect following the release of a state investigation that "deeply concerned" the state's top health official.
In June, 21-year-old Kayla Duka came to the New Baltimore hospital after becoming physically aggressive. Since an early age, Duka has struggled with a whole host of brain disorders, from Aspergers syndrome to obsessive compulsive disorder to intermittent explosive disorder.
“She can be harmful to herself and to others around her,” said Kathy Avery, Duka’s mother. “She functions at a 9-year-old level and, to society, that’s wrong.”
In June, when Kayla’s condition worsened, she was put on a waiting list for an open psychiatric bed. After waiting for 24 hours, Avery got a call that a bed had opened up in New Baltimore.
“They called me and said Harbor Oaks had a bed available,” Avery recalls, “and I said, no thanks.”
Her daughter, Avery said, had been to Harbor Oaks before and didn’t like the treatment she received. Avery wanted to continue waiting for a bed elsewhere to open up.
“And they said for her to sit here for a couple days, she’s not going to get medication, she’s not going to get treatment that she needs,” Avery said. “Let’s give it a try.”
Avery was convinced and allowed for Kayla to be treated at Harbor Oaks. After less than a week at the New Baltimore hospital, according to police, she was attacked.
“There was a physical altercation between Kayla and another patient, and Kayla had been hit in the face several times," Avery was told by a nurse.
According to a witnesses, the other patient “lunged” at Kayla, punching her three or four times in the face before having to be “pulled off” of her by other nurses.
New Baltimore Police turned the case over to the city attorney’s office. In July, they authorized a charge against the alleged assailant, making it at least the fourth charged case stemming from Harbor Oaks since last spring.
“We promise in law a lot of protections to people with severe mental illness, but in reality on the ground, it breaks down too often,” said Mark Reinstein, President and CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan.
Prompted by our reporting, Reinstein met with state officials last year urging them to investigate what’s allowing repeated abuse to go in inside Harbor Oaks’ walls.
Instead, the state chose to dig into how Harbor Oaks investigates itself. Specifically, they looked at how the hospital’s recipient rights office handles complaints of abuse and neglect of patients.
The reports findings, released recently, noted that the number of complaints inside Harbor Oaks has risen sharply, from 258 in fiscal year 2017 to 450 the next year. But when rights violations were established, only 21% of the cases reviewed by investigators led to any sort of required discipline. The report also said that none of the complaints the state reviewed were investigated in a timely manner.
“Who’s watching them, how successful is the monitoring?” asked Reinstein. “The answer should be, up until now, pretty pathetic.”
One of the recipient rights complaints still waiting for a resolution was filed more than a year ago by a father featured in a 7 Action News report in 2018. When his non-verbal son was treated at Harbor Oaks, he took him home only to find wounds and bruises the hospital never told him about.
“I see a claw mark, after the claw mark I see spots on his back everywhere,” he told us. “And then I take his pants off, the skin was like peeling.”
State law says complaints need to be investigated within 90 days. But it’s been more than a year since the father alleged a rights violations and, according to a lawyer recently retained by the family, the case is still pending.
As a result of Harbor Oaks’ repeated failures to police itself, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently recommended that it oversee Harbor Oaks’ recipient rights office for a period of six months. State officials are awaiting a response from Harbor Oaks before deciding if oversight is necessary.
“We need answers,” Reinstein said. “People’s lives are at stake here.”
Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (248) 827-9466.