08/27/08 — District attorney: Other agencies looking at Cherry

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District attorney: Other agencies looking at Cherry

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 27, 2008 1:52 PM

The State Bureau of Investigation has been enlisted to investigate the recent death of a Cherry Hospital patient, and local District Attorney Branny Vickory says the hospital has been "very cooperative" in the case.

"Cherry has been absolutely open and willing to give them everything they want," Vickory said Tuesday.

Vickory had been quoted in other media as saying Cherry Hospital administrators and police have not always provided evidence against employees.

"That's not so," he said. "What I said was my assistant district attorney didn't see the video in that particular incident," referencing a previous case that had gone to court.

A swirl of controversy arose in recent weeks when it surfaced that Steven Sabock, 50, died after allegedly choking on medication, hitting his head and being left in a chair unattended for 22 hours while staff, caught on videotape, played cards and paid little attention to him.

The SBI has been brought in, Vickory said, via the state attorney general's office, which was "working the Medicaid angle and let me know they were out there" and offered assistance in the local case.

"They'll be investigating these issues that have come to the forefront, see what's going on with these alleged assaults, a patient dying," Vickory said.

The former incident referred to the case of two staff members arrested on Friday and charged with assaulting another patient at Cherry.

All this, though, the DA says, is a "symptom of a bigger problem."

"I just don't think we have got the resources in the mental health system that we need," he said. "It's unfortunate that jail is called upon as a last resort, and we can't go forward with them in court."

It's especially challenging when the person is deemed dangerous to himself and others, Vickory said.

"That's my biggest beef with Cherry Hospital," he said. "Sheriff Winders and I wind up dealing with (mental patients) in court, and prison's an even worse place for them." Historically, violence in the mental health system has been a recurring problem, Vickory said. And Cherry Hospital is not immune.

"This has been going on for years out there. We'll occasionally have patients bringing warrants out against patients," he said. "It's amazing how many violent incidents you have at a hospital, or maybe it's not amazing. ...

"From time to time, there will be more charges -- patient on patient, patient on staff, staff against patients. Unfortunately it's a symptom of the crisis in the mental health system."

Patients from Cherry Hospital are sent to area jails "on a regular basis," Vickory says.

"These days (it's) because Cherry says either they're ready to go to jail or that Cherry can't do anything with them and they return them to jail," he said. "That's the worst place to put someone that has genuine mental issues."

Dorothea Dix Hospital, by contrast, he added, deserves credit for its handling of forensic evaluations, which determine if someone is capable of proceeding to trial.

"Dorothea Dix needs to stay where they are doing forensic evaluations because that's extremely important," Vickory said. "Cherry Hospital will send them back to us and we'll have to send them to Dix, who will inevitably say they're not ready to proceed. It's that incredible circle that's going around and around."

And in that circle, especially when violence becomes a factor, he continued, "I guess the staff feels like they're constrained to keep from getting assaulted, so sometimes they overreact and retaliate."

Reacting is acceptable, retaliating is not, the district attorney said.

Public perception of mental health facilities is another aspect of the problem, he explained, and a tricky one at that -- particularly when it comes to working conditions and what staff members face and the means by which situations are handled.

So when cases go to court and are subsequently dropped, it is not necessarily because his office does not choose to go forward with them. Sometimes, Vickory said, they are simply resolved without further action becoming necessary.

However, he added, "We don't always go along with the decision to resolve it with dismissals. We want to find out if there's a pattern. There's a lot of things we have to look into.

"The question is, what about if they refuse to testify? Why don't you just show the tape?"

The recent inquiry into Sabock's death, which was captured on tape, has stirred not only public emotions but now the involvement of the Attorney General's Office and the SBI.

Vickory's role at this point is uncertain.

"I think the AG's office is willing to prosecute or assist with prosecution," he said. "I think I will be working real close with them on it."