A man who says his brother was abused repeatedly by staff at Connecticut's only maximum-security psychiatric hospital urged lawmakers on Monday to look more deeply into the case and make changes at the state-run facility.
Al Shehadi said he came forward to give a name to the victim at the center of internal and criminal investigations, to tell his brother's story and to "encourage this committee to continue to investigate what happened."
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"The abuse my brother suffered is hard to imagine," Shehadi told members of the General Assembly's Public Health Committee.
He described seeing surveillance video of workers flipping his brother, Bill Shehadi, off a bed, pouring liquid over his head and mopping his head with a floor mop. He said there are roughly 50 episodes of abuse over 24 days, most occurring when his brother was sleeping.
"The videos I saw convey an atmosphere of almost constant menace," he said, describing how staff would circle his brother's bed and kick and torment him. "It was the feeling of cats playing with a cornered mouse that was most disturbing to me."
Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Dephin-Rittmon voiced surprise during Monday's hearing at the extent of abuse that took place at the Whiting Forensic Division of the Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, telling lawmakers her agency is working to understand how it happened without the knowledge of higher-ups. Lawmakers are expected to consider possible reforms when they reconvene in February.
The commissioner called it "very troubling" that 37 staff members have been implicated and that abuses weren't reported.
"We are working very hard to understand how this could happen and what other measures we should take to ensure this will never happen again," she said.
Whiting is part of Connecticut Valley Hospital, a psychiatric care complex run by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It includes 106 beds for patients in maximum security and 141 beds for those in enhanced security. The patients include people found not guilty of murder and other crimes by reason of insanity and other people committed voluntarily or involuntarily by civil courts.
Al Shehadi said his brother slipped into deep depression decades ago and became increasingly psychotic, eventually killing their father.
Ten employees have been arrested and seven fired in connection with the hospital abuse case. An internal investigation is continuing, and Dephin-Rittmon said additional disciplinary actions may be taken.
Whiting's chief operating officer and director of nursing have been removed, while an outside security firm has been hired to monitor live camera feeds around the clock. A former top Whiting official has been named acting director, and a behavioral health consulting group has been hired to help identify and rectify systemic issues, Delphin-Rittmon said.
Delphin-Rittmon said she believes fear and intimidation contributed to why the abuse continued without the knowledge of top Whiting officials. While not naming Bill Shehadi, a recent state Department of Public Health report found staff members put a diaper on the patient's head, threw food at him, put salt in his coffee and kicked, jabbed, poked and taunted him this year.
The agency investigated at the request of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which regulates the hospital, following a whistleblower complaint.
Delphin-Rittmon said video evidence of the abuse "has sickened and haunted" her.
State Sen. Heather Somers, the Republican Senate chair of the Public Health Committee who pushed for Monday's hearing, said she believes the state needs to do more to address a systemic problem of bullying and fear of retaliation among employees.