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More claims of abuse, retaliation at Idaho state-run center for the disabled

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 10, 2018

The Southwest Idaho Treatment Center (SWITC) in Nampa provides residential care to people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. It is run by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. (Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman)
The Southwest Idaho Treatment Center (SWITC) in Nampa provides residential care to people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. It is run by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. (Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesman)
By Audrey Dutton Idaho Statesman

BOISE – A former employee of a state-run facility in Nampa has filed a whistleblower claim against two Idaho agencies, saying she spoke up about abuse and neglect, then was pulled from her job.

Kelly Hardy filed a notice of tort claim in July against the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center — a required first step toward suing the agencies. It is at least the third such claim by a former SWITC employee.

SWITC is a center for people with significant mental health and developmental disorders. It is operated by Health and Welfare. More than 100 employees work at the facility, caring for about two dozen residents.

Hardy has worked for the department since August 2002.

She was promoted in March 2017 to a job overseeing certain staff members, including an employee whose job was to conduct abuse and neglect investigations. That employee told Hardy that she did “very few investigations” because most allegations didn’t meet the criteria for opening a case, the tort claim says.

In the first few months of her supervisory job at SWITC, Hardy claims:

a complaint about verbal abuse went uninvestigated.

two patients said a staff member threatened to “beat them behind the pool where there aren’t cameras.”

the center didn’t notify Child Protective Services about child-abuse allegations.

a patient who couldn’t talk had to be hospitalized with an untreated wound, which the patient had been signaling needed to be cleaned. SWITC staff “refused to treat the wound and denied him medical attention as punishment [because he] did not want to take a shower,” and they yelled at him and called him names and knocked him to the ground. The internal investigation of the case concluded there was no neglect.

one staff member said, “I get paid to be an asshole.”

a patient who couldn’t talk or go to the bathroom independently would be found in the morning “soiled with feces.”

prison inmates who did maintenance work at SWITC were left alone with patients.

one staff member “threatened to kill a client, and another threatened to kick a client’s ass.”

an employee hit a patient and “bragged about it to other staff.”

three staff members goaded a patient into a fight “as an excuse to use the [physical] restraint” they had set up.

Hardy says she “tried to change the culture at SWITC.” Employees were afraid to report abuse or neglect “because other employees who had done so had been terminated,” her claim says.

She says she tried to set up a system of bonuses for staff members who acted as “positive role models.”

Troubled by what she saw in her first few months on the job, Hardy says, she and the SWITC director met with Health and Welfare administrators. Hardy says she voiced her concerns, reported what she had seen and heard, said the center was understaffed, and told the administrators that internal oversight wasn’t working. The investigations were “neglectful and allowed the abuse to occur,” she told them.

Hardy was informed at the end of the meeting that she would be “removed from all investigative duties,” and human resources would instead take over complaint investigations.

Two days later, Hardy says, she was pulled off administrative duties. Two weeks later, she was removed from SWITC after she made a Facebook post about Health and Welfare’s internal investigation into abuse claims.

She wasn’t fired but was transferred to another division in September.

An official told her she had made a “mess” at SWITC and “overreacted to the abuse she witnessed there,” her claim says.

From 2005 through July 2017, she got “exemplary” or “solid” performance evaluations, according to her tort claim. She got her first “substandard” review shortly after reporting abuse and neglect at SWITC.

She remains employed by Health and Welfare, but in a children’s division.

Hardy’s tort claim also raises questions about whether staff members found to have abused clients were properly disciplined. At least one of them was allowed to resign in lieu of termination and was not added to a federal list of people whose misdeeds make them unqualified to take care of Medicare or Medicaid patients. That employee instead started working as a supervisor at a home for people with developmental disabilities, her claim says.

“Where the health and welfare of vulnerable adults and kids are in the hands of the state, in cases like this, this is why whistleblower laws and protections are really important,” said Hardy’s lawyer, Kass Harstad of Strindberg & Scholnick. “You need employees, when they see wrongdoing like this, they need to be able to say something about it without fear of reprisal and retaliation. … A lot of these people are non-verbal, and if employees can’t stand up and tell the truth, these kids and people don’t have anybody else to protect them.”

Hardy filed the notice of tort claim July 9. The state has 90 days to respond to it. She also filed a lawsuit in Ada County 4th District Court with similar allegations; that lawsuit is on hold until the state’s response deadline for the tort claim.

A spokeswoman for Health and Welfare said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

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