Monday, September 3, 2007

How the Northwestern got Scooped

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel simply asked the right questions and did their homework. The Northwestern did not.

Here's what went wrong.

On July 27th, Corey Rehm, a 42 year-old man from Dousman (just south of Delafield) was arrested for fleeing and fighting with the local police. When being taken into custody he demanded that the police officers kill him, claiming he had no longer any reason to live. On July 1st he was given a psychiatric evaluation in Waukesha County and was ordered to undergo treatment at WMHI. On July 2nd, he escaped, stole a motorcycle, drove all the way back to Dousman and, according to the MJS, "on the next day he committed suicide on the deck of his home as a news helicopter hovered and before a SWAT team that had surrounded his house could act."

Right here all kind of alarms should have been going off in the Northwestern's newsroom, and maybe they did. Maybe someone called up WMHI and asked for an explanation and probably got something like "Yeah, we're looking into it, but clearly the guy was very disturbed and he wasn't even here a day and ..."

Now that might make a certain degree of sense, and that the incident involved a person from out of town probably made the issue less pressing, but it wouldn't excuse the fact that someone who had been ordered by the state into custody, who was a clear danger to himself and likely others, had escaped.

Well over a month after Rehm's suicide the MJS ran an editorial outlining what looked clearly like attempts to stonewall their investigations:

In keeping their lips sealed about how Corey Rehm was able to escape from a state mental hospital, state officials are doing nothing to protect Rehm's privacy interests and everything to protect themselves from public scrutiny. The cat is out of the bag, and state officials need to tell the public not about Rehm or his condition but about how he escaped from Winnebago Mental Health Institute before committing suicide at his Dousman home last month.


So five weeks after Rehm's suicide, the MJS was still on the story. The investigation into the escape was likely procedural, but the reporters at the MSJ stuck with the story, probably having a hunch that perhaps something was afoot. Further undermining the care given at the facility was a story that ran just days after the editorial that reveal a committed patient with a history of violence was treated like a "voluntary patient" at WMHI. More stonewalling ensued. The newspaper filed an open records request and, lo and behold, they were right:

Winnebago received widespread publicity this year after a man escaped from the facility and later killed himself. Inspectors found no violations in that incident. But in site visits last year, regulators found numerous problems.

Inspection reports obtained by the Journal Sentinel under the state's Open Records Law show how poor supervision, questionable medical care, inadequate staffing and bad judgment placed patients in jeopardy, sometimes costing them their lives.

I don't know how WMHI is required to report the instances that have come to light -- do they do so with the Department of Health and Family Services, Corrections, the county? -- but a little more local scrutiny would likely go a long way to preventing this from happening in the future.

Of the three major state institutions in Oshkosh, WMHI is the easiest to push under the carpet. UW-O is the subject of relentless local criticism year in and out. The prison is something of a reality that most of the city has come to except, largely because it's so big. But WMHI is tucked away behind a thicket of trees along one of the lesser traveled exits out of town and no one who doesn't need to think about it probably does. That clearly can't be the case anymore. The people who work at WMHI are also members of the Oshkosh community and if some of them are treating the lesser among us in what is obviously an intolerable way, the rest of the city should know about it.

One of the things that is likely making life difficult for the Northwestern is that that the story broke on a holiday weekend. That may delay an in-depth analysis of the situation, but it shouldn't delay acknowledging that there is a situation to begin with. Right now, it's been two days since the original story ran in the MJS. It's all over the TV news and even in the Appleton Post-Cresent, so the wire story is in the Gannett system and the Northwestern should run with it as soon as possible. Not doing so looks bad.

Then the Northwestern should undertake a comprehensive report on WMHI. They should interview staff and patients, detail what changes are being made to supervision, treatment and personnel, and why. The NW should also examine the states of the state's other mental health facilities and investigate if this is an institutional problem or one isolated to WMHI. This should include a review of policies made in Madison (including a budget analysis) and might even involve road trips to the sites themselves. Individual case studies should also be scrutinized where possible. Experts with differing and outside opinions should be consulted.

Now is as good a time as any to develop a clear picture of the state of metal health care in Wisconsin and because this has happened our back yard the NW is in a unique position to look at the matter. They should use this opportunity to help turn an ugly situation into opportunity for significant change.

44 comments:

Lincy said...

It will allow us to do more to get visual and performing artists in here, We want to create a culture where a night at the Grand means you see a performance and stick around for a beverage afterwards.
---------------------------
Linc

Wisconsin Drug Addiction

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