GOLDSBORO — Patrick Hill has spent most of his 72 years shielded from the world by relatives who worried about the cruelty and dangers a man with mental retardation would face.
But as seizures started to wrack his brain in 2010, doctors urged his niece to move Hill to the O’Berry Neuro-Medical Treatment Center in Goldsboro, a state facility designed to care for those with profound developmental disabilities.
There, Hill was abused, kicked so hard by a staff member his groin swelled and blackened, state records show. His family believes the abuse was more than an isolated incident, and they are trying to piece together episodes of sexual violence they say Hill relives each night through nightmares.
Hill’s niece and caretaker, Gwendolyn Woods, is suing the state for the abuse Hill endured at O’Berry. She moved Hill home to the family homestead in Kinston last fall and quit her job at a nursing home to care for him. She frets each day that others in state facilities without relatives to monitor their care are also in danger.
“How many are there like him?” Woods asked.
Thousands of the state’s most vulnerable citizens find a home in nearly a dozen state facilities set up to keep them safe. Centers from the mountains to the coast care for people debilitated by illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s. Some have lived there for decades; others settle in these facilities after their relatives age and can no longer care for them at home.
Last year, at the O’Berry Center and the two other state facilities most like it, the state Department of Health and Human Services substantiated 41 cases of abuse or neglect. Those three institutions combined held a daily average of 626 patients.
For many claims, that’s as far as they get. Staff members are sometimes fired or transferred, but criminal charges are infrequently filed. In Hill’s case, he identified by a first name the center employee who kicked him. That employee, Kenneth Ford, was later fired for Hill’s abuse, according to Ford’s termination letter. Ford has not been criminally charged. Ford has denied kicking Hill. A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office, where the case was referred by police, declined to comment because of privacy requirements. Woods said police told her that her uncle’s impairments would make it difficult for him to be an effective witness.
Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, said she frequently hears that reason when law enforcement doesn’t file charges.
“They are vulnerable in the best of situations,” she said. “To know and have pretty good documentation that abuse occurred, then to say, ‘We won’t prosecute because the victim won’t make a good witness ...,’ that, too is abusive. It’s like they are being victimized twice.”
Hill’s family says the state failed them. They say Hill left the O’Berry Center somehow broken. He has regressed to wetting and soiling himself, Woods says, and he wakes in the night crying and yelling for strangers to leave his room.
“We didn’t send him there like this,” Woods said. “He came home to us a different person.”
A big bruise
Hill has the mind of a 4-year-old. He talks haltingly, choking on some words while others come rapidly and loudly.
A case of polio and severe pneumonia as an infant robbed him of much of his brain function. His right arm is curled and crooked against his chest. His right foot is twisted on its side, forcing Hill to drag it when he walks.
His mother protected him fiercely, relatives say. She kept him home while she sent his siblings to school and fenced the backyard of their downtown Kinston home in case he wandered. Woods promised her grandmother before she died in 2010 that she would move into their home and care for her uncle.
The task proved overwhelming for Woods, 46, who worked full-time at an assisted living facility for Alzheimer’s patients and reared two teenagers. When his seizures started to become erratic and medicine wasn’t controlling it, a doctor suggested that Hill might be safer at a facility with full-time medical care.
Woods reluctantly admitted Hill to the O’Berry Center in 2010. She placated her guilt by visiting him often and taking him home on some weekends.
Woods tried to stay calm last August when a supervisor at O’Berry called to tell her that Hill said he’d been assaulted.
When Woods saw her uncle, she asked him to show her his injury. His groin was black and blue, photos show. A bruise shaped and defined like the sole of a shoe stretched across his pelvic area. Hill said a male staff member pushed his head against a wall and kicked him in the groin. He called the man “Kent” and described his outfit.
For days, officials repeatedly interviewed staff assigned to Hill’s group home area. They showed Hill pictures of staff, and again and again, he pointed to Ford. Ford later took a polygraph exam and showed “reactions indicative of deception,” accord to Ford’s termination letter. He admitted during the examination to a prior incident of contact with Hill, saying: “I had to tussle with (him).” Ford repeatedly denied kicking Hill.
In the termination letter, a DHHS official found that Ford “intentionally inflicted physical injury.”
Ford, who was fired in October, could not be reached for comment. Phone numbers listed for him and possible family members were disconnected.
Another kind of abuse?
On Aug. 17, four days after Hill complained he had been assaulted, Woods visited O’Berry again. This time, she took Hill to the bathroom to more fully inspect his body. That’s when she noticed a series of bruises dotting his backside.
No one at the center had performed a full body examination of Hill days before; none of the routine “body checks” required by staff at shift changes previously noted any bruising on his buttocks.
Woods took several photos of her uncle with her camera phone and checked him out of the center to visit the emergency department of Lenoir Memorial Hospital.
After that, Woods said, her uncle started to describe another kind of abuse.
In broken, strained and sometimes confused disclosures, Hill told his niece about a man who climbed into his bed at night. He described a big and tall man who turned him over and hit him with a belt.
Hill says the same man climbed into his roommate’s bed, too, and that he was glad when that happened so he would be left alone. Hill’s roommate also has mental retardation and cannot speak, Woods said.
Staff at the O’Berry Center investigated Hill’s complaint of sexual violence. Hill identified another staff member in photographs as the man who visited him in bed at night. That employee, however, passed a polygraph examination, an internal investigative report says.
Investigators at the O’Berry Center did not substantiate Hill’s complaint of sexual assault, saying in the internal report provided by Hill’s family that “while Patrick shared a great deal of information he appeared to be combining many thoughts together which made it difficult for the investigation team to draw conclusions of a sexual assault.”
The report suggests Hill may be recalling an incident with another care provider before he came to the center. It says that Woods appeared to “initiate” and “lead” Hill through much of his disclosures.
Woods said she was just being protective of her uncle and helping him explain what happened.
The report doesn’t say whether Hill or other residents in his unit were examined by doctors for signs of sexual violence. A spokesman for the agency declined to say whether they had been.
“Allegations of every kind of abuse are taken very seriously by the Department of Health and Human Services and every one of its facilities,” DHHS said in a written statement. “Any time there is an allegation of abuse, our facilities are required to conduct a thorough investigation ... While the law prohibits us from discussing a particular case, we know of no situation at O’Berry where these procedures have not been followed.”
The Division of Health Service Regulation, which oversees care at facilities such as O’Berry, found that the center handled the case appropriately.
‘I let him down’
Woods is infuriated that not more was done and worries that others among the nearly 300 residents of O’Berry may be at risk.
In the two years her uncle lived at O’Berry, she rarely saw relatives visiting other residents. Many in Hill’s unit can’t speak.
“A lot of people there get forgotten,” Woods said.
State officials insist protocol was followed after Hill’s allegations. Records show repeated interviews with staff.
For now, Woods says she manages her uncle’s care minute by minute. When he wakes, so does she. Each week brings a battery of doctor’s visits. Each hour brings another round of diaper or sheet changes.
Hill passes most days in a recliner watching old westerns or television shows about animals. He strums a plastic guitar with the hand he can bend and smiles widely when Woods offers him a Honey Bun.
Though Woods is fully devoted to her uncle now, guilt eats at her. She blames herself for admitting him to the center and for not picking up on danger sooner.
“I let him down, my whole family down,” Woods said as she wipes crumbs from her uncle’s sweater. “We were supposed to protect him, and I put him in a place where he got hurt ... I will never get over it.”