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Psychiatric hospital for Michigan's sickest children struggles to stop patient escapes

Three different escapes occurred in January alone; 5 total patients escaped
Hawthorn Center aerial
Posted at 4:44 PM, Feb 21, 2023

NORTHVILLE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WXYZ) — Michigan’s only state-run psychiatric hospital for children—reserved for patients with the most severe mental illnesses—has experienced a surge of patient escapes in just the last month.

Five patient escapes from Hawthorn Center occurred in January alone, with some of those patients now facing possible criminal charges as a result of their conduct once they left the hospital.

For children battling the most severe mental illnesses, there is no place more vital than the Northville Township hospital.

As 7 Action News as reported, the waiting list to be admitted to Hawthorn is usually months long.

The children treated there are in need of urgent, round-the-clock care. Almost always, says mental health advocate Marianne Huff, they pose a danger to themselves or others.

“Starting fires in their family home, threatening their parents and their siblings,” Huff said, listing off the behaviors of many patients admitted to the hospital. Trying to hang themselves, overdoses.”

But as hard as it is to get into Hawthorn Center, some patients have found it easy to get out.

14 different patient escapes have been reported at the facility since 2020, according to police records obtained by 7 Action News.

Some juvenile patients were missing for more than an hour. On multiple occasions, K-9 units needed to be called in to help search for patients who had disappeared.

7 Action News obtained nearly a dozen calls to 911 over the last two years, where staff requested law enforcement’s help in locating the patients.

“One of the patients just jumped the fence,” a staffer reported during one 911 call in 2022.

In another call, a Hawthorn employee can be heard asking a colleague: “Where’d she go?” in reference to a missing female patient. “I don’t know where she went.”

Said another staffer in a call made this year: “I mean, this happens. Unfortunately, it happens quite often.”

The three escapes in January were especially troubling, according to sources, because some patients escaped more than once.

The most violent escape occurred on January 31 after one teen patient was able to gain hold of a staff member’s keys. He left, along with two other patients.

The three patients traveled a mile down Haggerty Road before entering a gas station in Livonia. Surveillance video shows one of the patients standing at the counter trying to buy vaping supplies.

When the clerk asked for ID, the patient is seen moving behind the counter, then throws a punch before trying to steal products on a shelf.

The two scuffle and more punches are thrown before the clerk calls 911.

A clerk then called 911, reporting that someone was "trying to rob the gas station." Fighting and yelling can be heard in the background.

Seconds later on the other side of the counter, another patient begins to fight with a second employee.

That patient didn’t have a weapon, but the man he was fighting with did — licensed to carry a concealed pistol. He later told police that he nearly used it.

“I pulled it out, kept it in the holster though,” the employee said, according to police body camera recordings. “Because I felt like he might be a kid.”

Both gas station employees sustained minor injuries.

“It could have been a huge tragedy,” said Ali Saad, who owns the gas station. “I really think that something has to be done about it.”

The patients—who came to Hawthorn to help stabilize their behavior—would be handcuffed and are now facing potential criminal charges.

“If there wasn’t another person here, God knows what this guy could have done,” Saad said. “There’s knives, there’s things that he could have (used to) create some great bodily harm.”

The biggest problem contributing to the patient escapes, according to employees, is that the hospital is woefully understaffed.

Today, there are 91 vacant positions at the hospital with openings for 27 nursing positions and 37 childcare workers.

“To me, it speaks to the staffing shortage,” said Huff, who is president of the Mental Health Association in Michigan. “It speaks to the fact that these are kids that have significant behavioral health issues.

Hawthorn staff do not have permission to talk to us on camera, but off camera they told 7 Action News every day at the hospital is a struggle.

Said one employee: “We have a lot of staff on medical (leave) or staff that recently quit because of the workload the hospital puts on us.”

Said another, who’s worked there more than three years: “This is the worst it’s ever been.”

“These are young people with significant behavioral health issues,” Huff said. “We’d like to think that if someone is in the state hospital, they wouldn’t be able to escape from the state hospital.”

Officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services declined an on-camera interview about the escapes at Hawthorn.

Instead, they released a statement that said they “review all incidents at our state hospitals to determine if changes in procedures are needed. In all cases of elopement from Hawthorn Center this year, youth were immediately followed by staff. In all cases, youth were returned to the facility the same day and in two cases youth were returned to the center within minutes of leaving.”

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.