Hospital must repair its culture, official says

He calls on Cherry to halt abuse, neglect of patients

Staff WriterNovember 21, 2008 

The state mental hospital in Goldsboro has a history of punishing mentally ill patients rather than treating them, a top state official said Thursday.

James Osberg, head of a team that oversees hospitals for the state Department of Health and Human Services, told a legislative committee that the culture at Cherry Hospital needs to change from one where "abuse and neglect was tolerated" by the staff.

Osberg's remarks came after the department was hit this week with fresh criticism after the state released video of a patient, Steven Sabock, 50, whom hospital staff largely ignored as he was dying.

Sabock's death in April slowly brought to light long-standing problems at Cherry Hospital that included assaults on patients, managers finding it difficult to verify abuse, and some staff members pressuring co-workers to remain silent about problems they witnessed.

"It certainly has been tolerated through threats and intimidation through the facility," Osberg said. "There has been a rather long-standing cultural environment of that being OK. That's where we need supervision and training on how to be more therapeutic."

The federal government stopped its insurance payments to Cherry Hospital in September because conditions were dangerous for patients. Three workers were fired and others disciplined after Sabock's death.

State Rep. Beverly Earle, a Charlotte Democrat, criticized the response as inadequate.

"We've got to send a clear message to the employees and to the families and to the public," she said. "Everyone associated with this incident should not have a job."

State policies prevent blanket firings, Osberg said.

A private consulting company is working on improvements, and officials are working on a reorganization to provide more direct supervision to staff who work with patients.

Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said the state needs a permanent resolution to Cherry's problems.

Osberg said that while security cameras at state hospitals are used largely to capture footage that can be checked later if problems arise, the cameras at Cherry are now being used to monitor treatment as it is happening.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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