A Virginia legislative subcommittee today agreed to look into complaints of patient abuse, sexual assaults and violence at Western State Hospital, the large mental institution where two officials were recently suspended after publicly accusing hospital administrators of negligence.
The Joint Mental Health Oversight subcommittee scheduled hearings for Aug. 10-11 in Staunton to listen to employes and relatives of patients at the 1,050-patient institution there.
Subcommittee Chairman Frank Slayton (D-South Boston) announced the hearings after the panel met for more than an hour in closed session with state mental health officials and Dr. William Burns, Western State's director, to discuss the state-operated hospital's problems.
Judy Goldberg of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, which is handling an administrative appeal filed by the two suspended officials, objected to the closed session, saying it violated the state's open-meetings law. But Slayton closed the meeting at the request of state officials, who have contended many of the hospital's problems stem from "personnel matters."
A recent series of articles in The Washington Post detailed changes by a dozen members of the hospital's staff of patient abuse and negligence. Included were accounts of male patients in one ward being routinely subjected to homesexual assaults; of chronically ill and physically vulnerable patients in another ward being improperly mixed with accused felons, resulting in beatings and sexual assaults; and of more than 250 patients being confined improperly at the hospital through what administrators concede was an "inappropriate" legal status.
Officials of the hospital, which handles hundreds of patients from Northern Virginia, say they have taken steps to correct the problems.
The hospital's social work chief and quality assurance director, both of whom were quoted in the series, were temporarily suspended from their jobs the week the articles appeared. Both have contended the suspensions resulted from their public criticism, a charge state mental health department officials have denied.
Arlington Del. Warren G. Stambaugh, one of two Northern Virginians on the panel, urged that the hearings be held promptly. "I have a lot of constituents who happen to have a lot of friends and relatives in that hospital," said Stambaugh. He said quick hearings are needed because "if in fact steps have not been taken and the [problems] still exist, then there's a great deal of urgency."
But the panel agreed to delay the hearings for two months after state Mental Health Personnel Director Anne Goodman said that it would take that long for the appeals of the two suspended administrators to be exhausted. Goodman and Mental Health Commissioner Leo Kirven said the department will cooperate with the hearings but contended that most of the complaints involve matters that had already been resolved.
ACLU director Chan Kendrick said his group also welcomed the hearings but contended that "waiting over two months will give the department a further chance to intimidate and harass employes. The sooner the public hearing is held, the better."