07/27/07 — Doctor at Cherry Hospital faces inquiry

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Doctor at Cherry Hospital faces inquiry

By Lee Williams
Published in News on July 27, 2007 1:46 PM

An acting medical director at Cherry Hospital has been suspended pending a probe into his criminal history that lists a felony conviction for inappropriately touching a 9-year-old girl.

Dr. Robert Carl Owens, 53, of Goldsboro, was placed on an "investigatory leave with pay" Wednesday, said Debbie Crane, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The suspension came within hours after calls from The Goldsboro News-Argus regarding his work history and Owens' 1989 conviction in Burke County for taking indecent liberties with a child. Owens was hired four years later at Cherry -- two years before he received a clear license to practice medicine.

Cherry Hospital is a 284-bed facility that treats mentally ill patients and serves 33 counties in the state.

Mrs. Crane declined comment on why Owens was hired to work for the psychiatric hospital despite his felony conviction.

But she added criminal background checks for DHHS employees were not required at the time Owens was hired in 1993. However, in 1998, a law was enacted that required all direct care workers such as physicians to undergo criminal background checks, she said.

Health care officials are encouraged to check a potential hire's criminal background before he or she is hired, but it is unclear if this was done before Owens went to work for Cherry.

Owens joined the hospital on July 1, 1993, DHHS spokesman Brad Deen said. He draws a $166,100 salary and has no record of disciplinary actions, Deen added.

But the hospital employee who leaked information about the charge, and who asked not to be identified, complained that Owens was allowed to climb the ladder of success despite his past.

"I feel it's wrong," he said. "He should be held to a higher standard."

Dr. Jack Sinclair, hospital director, was unable to comment on the matter because of the pending investigation and personnel constraints, state officials said.

Owens was unavailable for comment.

The employee said he also believes Owens should be posted on the North Carolina Sex Offender Registry.

But since the conviction occurred before the registry was created in January 1996, the information is not included or required to be included by law.

However, details regarding Owens' conviction are listed on the North Carolina Department of Corrections Web site and the North Carolina Medical Board's Web site, which is free and accessible to the public.

Owens graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1979. He later moved to Morganton to practice medicine.

Sources say Owens was a noted physician who specialized in internal medicine.

But his career took a turn on May 15, 1988, when a neighbor's 9-year-old daughter accused him of touching her at a sleepover.

Owens was 35 at the time. He had a wife and children.

"This man was known in the community to be an excellent doctor," said a former official who worked on the case. He added that an event that happened nearly 20 years ago shouldn't end the doctor's career.

"I think it was an isolated, bizarre thing that happened, and he paid a high price for it," the source said.

Owens, who admitted to being impaired at the time of the incident, pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a child. He received a three-year active sentence and was granted immediate work release for his Jan. 19, 1989, conviction.

His medical license was suspended eight days later.

N.C. Medical Board spokes-man Dale Breaden, who did not discuss the specifics of the case, said doctors convicted of a felony lose their medical license for two years.

However, a felony conviction doesn't bar a doctor from receiving a medical license in the future.

Doctors convicted of a felony often undergo various forms of treatment, psychotherapy, alcohol and/or drug treatment. This often paves the way for a new medical license.

"People can get their license after a couple of years with tight restrictions, and they are carefully watched," he said.

Owens was issued a temporary permit from March 1991 until July 22, 1994, but strict restrictions were imposed.

According to a temporary permit issued in March 1991 Owens could only provide care to patients 18 and over, in a group setting. The permit also barred him from practicing medicine within 100 miles of Morganton, the city where the sex assault occurred.

Another temporary permit, which was issued in July 1992, stipulated that Owens could only treat patients 13 and over. The permit also mandated that all of the visits were chaperoned and in a group setting. It also continued the stipulation that he could not practice medicine within 100 miles of Morganton.

In July 1995, Owens medical license was fully reinstated. No restrictions were mandated.