Porterville Developmental Center is one of a handful of institutions in California that houses people with significant impairments who require 24/7 care. It includes a “secure” wing for the housing of people deemed unfit to stand trial due to the nature of their impairments, including a man named Larry Russell. In December of 2010, Russell was involved in an altercation with a nursing assistant at the facility, Eric Hansen. The fight ended with Russell unconscious and comatose for ten days, with distinctive boot marks across his torso.
Curiously, all of the staff at the facility claimed that they either hadn’t seen anything, or backed Hansen’s description of the course of events. Hansen claimed that he had followed protocols in restraining Russell after he became agitated because he wasn’t allowed outside to take a smoke break. The Porterville police duly compiled the evidence in the case, but took no additional steps to investigate.
Hansen, meanwhile, has gone on to leave a swath of abuse in his wake. Patients have accused him of physical and sexual assault, while another nursing assistant who was present at the time of the assault later recanted her story about what happened, claiming that she saw Hansen stomping on Russell and pleaded with him to stop. Russell, who initially refused to identify his attacker, later said it was Hansen, and he was backed by anonymous tips fingering Russell as the attacker. The fact that no one was willing to openly discuss the abuse was a sobering testimony to the culture of fear surrounding Russell and the conditions at Porterville, which is only one among many facilities in California where disabled people have been subjected to abuse by staff with little to no consequences.
The Center for Investigative Reporting has been following the state’s failure to protect disabled residents like Russell in its ongoing Broken Shield series, which chronicles law enforcement failings when it comes to identifying, investigating and prosecuting cases against residents of institutions. Certified nursing assistants like the one pictured above play a critical role in the lives of patients in such facilities, and they can also make the difference between comfort and abuse, trust and fear, and life and death. Ethical staff with good training and respect for their patients provide the services their clients need with grace and respect, while abusive orderlies, nursing assistants and other personnel can turn an institution into a living nightmare for its residents.
As illustrated with the Hansen case, an abusive staff member can continue to work at a facility long after clear evidence of abuse is presented. While Hansen’s license was finally revoked in 2012, leading Porterville to fire him, he’s appealing to have it restored and he may be successful. In that case, he’ll be back in primary patient care again. Given his prior history, he’s also likely to be back to being abusive again, since the state ruled that he was not “trainable” and pointed out that he had been associated with numerous violent episodes, making him precisely the kind of person you don’t want providing care to patients.
The patients he could be in charge of may have difficulty communicating, understanding requests, or controlling their moods. Patients in institutions can often experience agitation and distress for a variety of reasons, not least is the often brutal conditions, and violent, impatient staff.
This case is alarming not simply because it’s horrific, but because it’s one among a series of such cases, where abusive personnel have been left in place at California institutions, leaving them alone with vulnerable patients, many of whom cannot advocate for themselves. This is a problem not just in secure wings of facilities for people unfit to stand trial, but also in larger institutions for disabled people, along with nursing homes for older adults, people with Alzheimer’s, and others who require care and assistance for tasks of daily living.
Leaving our most vulnerable in the hands of some of our most abusive speaks poorly of us as a society, and it also sets up vulnerable people as targets for those who wish to prey upon them. By illustrating that we have limited interest in pursuing such cases and bringing perpetrators of violence crimes against institutionalized people to justice, we’re indicating that it’s acceptable to continue abusing them.
Photo credit: Truckee Meadows Community College.