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Police seeking DNA of male staff at health-care facility where woman in vegetative state gave birth

January 8, 2019 at 9:02 PM

Drip on the background of doctor walking down the hall. (iStock)

Police investigators are seeking DNA samples from male staff members at a private care facility in Arizona where a woman in a vegetative state gave birth to a child, the company said Tuesday.

Hacienda HealthCare said in a statement that Phoenix police investigators served a search warrant for the samples. “As a company, we welcome this development in the ongoing police investigation,” the company said.

The announcement came a day after the company’s CEO resigned following reports that the woman, left in a persistent vegetative state for nearly a decade after a near-drowning, had given birth.

The birth — and the sexual assault of a vulnerable individual that must have preceded it — has cast a harsh glare on conditions at a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a leading provider of health care for Phoenix’s medically fragile.

The woman’s universe consisted mostly of a room at a Phoenix Hacienda HealthCare facility, where she received round-the-clock care.

When she went into labor a few days after Christmas, her caretakers were flummoxed. “From what I’ve been told, she was moaning,” an unidentified source told Phoenix CBS affiliate KPHO. “And they didn’t know what was wrong with her. … None of the staff were aware that she was pregnant until she was pretty much giving birth."

On Dec. 29, with help from one of the facility’s nurses, the patient gave birth to a healthy baby boy, KPHO reported.

Phoenix police did not immediately respond to a request Tuesday to confirm the search warrant for the DNA samples. It is unclear whether any employees have responded to the police’s request.

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Hacienda HealthCare, which has 40 programs that serve more than 2,500 people a year in Arizona, said in a statement Monday that the company’s CEO, Bill Timmons, resigned.

Hacienda “will accept nothing less than a full accounting of this absolutely horrifying situation, an unprecedented case that has devastated everyone involved, from the victim and her family to Hacienda staff at every level of our organization,” Gary Orman, a member of Hacienda’s board of directors, said in the statement.

No one has been arrested in connection with the incident, and it’s unclear whether police have identified any suspects. In Arizona, sexually assaulting a vulnerable adult is a felony.

Karina Cesena told Phoenix independent news station KTVK that she is sleeping in her 22-year-old daughter’s room at the facility until the assailant is found.

Cesena’s daughter has a traumatic brain injury that causes hundreds of seizures a day.

“I do not [know if my daughter was victimized], but I do ask her, and she can answer yes or no,” Cesena told the news station. “She is not able to walk or talk yet, but she does understand.”

About Hacienda HealthCare, Cesena said: “Trust has been broken. Trust has definitely been broken.”

Other family members of patients told the news station that they’d noticed more security guards and a new protocol requiring male staffers to be accompanied by female staffers if they go into a female patient’s room.

[She spent 14 years caring for a granddaughter with cerebral palsy. Then she shot her, police say.]

On Tuesday, the San Carlos Apache Tribe said the woman is a member, according to a statement provided to 12 News.

“On behalf of the Tribe, I am deeply shocked and horrified at the treatment of one of our members,” tribe Chairman Terry Rambler said in the statement. “It is my hope that justice will be served.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s office released a statement saying the reports are “deeply troubling.”

In addition to working with police, state officials are “reevaluating the state’s contract and regulatory authority as it relates to this facility and have been working closely with state agencies to ensure all necessary safety measures are in place,” Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Ducey (R), said in a statement.

The state’s Department of Economic Security dispatched a team to conduct health and safety checks at the facility, and the Department of Health Services has beefed up safety measures: more staff, increased monitoring and stronger security.

Hacienda HealthCare was founded five decades ago. It was then called Hacienda de los Angeles, or “the dwelling of the angels.” Hacienda HealthCare over time became the umbrella for several programs in the Phoenix area that treat chronically ill infants, children and adults.

There have been reports of patient mistreatment. For example, an investigation in 2013 found that a staff member had made “inappropriate, sexual statements” about four clients. The staff member remarked that one client with intellectual disabilities had been placed in a sexual position. The worker had also been observed watching clients touch themselves. The alleged incidents weren’t reported to the facility’s administrators until a month after they occurred.

That staff member was ultimately terminated, but the state found that the facility “failed to ensure clients … were treated with dignity.”

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Herman Wong is a deputy editor on the general assignment news desk for The Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2014, and was previously at the business news site Quartz.

Cleve Wootson is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. He was previously a reporter for the Charlotte Observer.

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