Facebook Twitter

Patient abuse tied to apathy, low pay

SHARE Patient abuse tied to apathy, low pay

SOMERSET, Ky. — Before she worked at Kentucky's largest center for mentally retarded adults, Dee Sumpter carried out groceries at Kroger and sewed elastic onto women's underwear at a factory.

Jennifer Gregory was a cashier at McDonald's. William Crabtree drove a delivery truck. Rita Phelps was a hairdresser.

All of them applied to the Communities at Oakwood, a state-run home with about 260 retarded adults, and were hired as patient aides even though they had no experience, according to personnel files obtained by The Associated Press.

Now they are among 15 Oakwood employees arrested in recent months on charges of abusing patients.

Mental health experts say low wages, inexperience, poor training and a lack of genuine interest in the well-being of patients often contribute to abuse and neglect at such institutions.

"It's true that because of low pay, the facilities are often not selective," said Linda Hickson, a professor of health and behavior studies at Columbia University. "They often get people who have no background at all to deal with people with challenging behaviors."

State regulators found evidence that patients at Oakwood were kicked, punched, pushed into walls or hurled to the floor. One patient left unsupervised during a bath drowned; another choked to death on a hot dog. No charges were filed in the two deaths.

Caretakers are expected to help patients with bathing, using the toilet, dressing and eating. Salaries for caretakers at Oakwood or other state institutions in Kentucky range from $16,000 to $24,000. Nationwide, the average is $21,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

State regulators have hit Oakwood with 21 citations in as many months for allegations of abuse and neglect. By the last week in July, Oakwood had been fined $1.4 million for not correcting health and safety problems.