Brutal beating and abuse plague the Illinois-run Choate Center for Mental Health and Development, investigation reveals

When Blaine Richard got up from the breakfast table at the Choate Center for Mental Health and Development in southern Illinois, a worker ordered him to pull up his flabby pants.

A 24-year-old man with autism and developmental disabilities, who did not obey Richard.

“I’m a gangster! That’s how we do where I come from!” replied Richard, who, despite his defiance, still slept with a teddy bear.

Investigators heard varying accounts of what happened next, but several witnesses told Illinois State Police that Raychard was beaten by four mental health techs and repeatedly punched in the face, according to a state police report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Richard cursed and spat, in an attempt to respond, met with more blows.

Richard was dragged into his room and strapped to his bed, where a fellow resident told the police that he saw a mental health tech Mark Allen hit Richard’s face; Crime scene photos show blood splattering in his room.

Allen also sent a text message, obtained by the police, to a colleague: “We just finished Straben Blaine in…I’m dealing with his world this morning.” She replied, “You guys always do lol…”. Richard told police that Allen threatened to kill him if he reported the beating.

A months-long investigation by Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises and ProPublica found that the 2014 incident was one of many cases of abuse at the facility operated by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

A photograph of Blaine Richard's bed that was included in a police report.  Closer photos show blood splattered on the floor and wall.

A photograph of Blaine Richard’s bed that was included in a police report. Closer photos show blood splattered on the floor and wall.

Journalists reviewed thousands of pages of documents from IDHS and its Inspector General; Illinois State Police; Officials of the Union County, where the facility is located; and other entities. They also spoke with current and former staff and advocates, residents and their parents, and revealed a systematic pattern of patient abuse, neglect, humiliation and exploitation.

Over the 10 years through 2021, state police opened at least 40 criminal investigations into alleged employee misconduct at Choate, more than any of the other IDHS facilities in southern Illinois.

Using court records and police case files, reporters found that at least 26 Choate employees were arrested on criminal charges during about the same period, including those accused of flogging, strangling, punching and raping residents.

In a written statement to reporters, IDHS spokeswoman Marisa Collias acknowledged that the problems at Choate are “the result of long-standing and deeply rooted issues dating back decades.” She said the agency had “taken drastic measures” to improve, including increasing staffing, training and appointing an independent law firm to monitor conditions within the facility.

The Mental Health and Development Choice Center in rural Anna, Illinois, was built over 150 years ago.

The Mental Health and Development Choice Center in rural Anna, Illinois, was built over 150 years ago.

Whitney Curtis for ProPublica

The perfect victim

The 270-bed facility near the small town of Anna serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illnesses or a range of disorders. Approximately 15% of the population with developmental disabilities have diagnoses in the severe or profound range; About 10% is nonverbal.

“In essence, many of these individuals could be the ‘perfect victim’ of a crime because it is easy to suspect someone who has mental challenges or who cannot make a statement because of their mental health,” Tyler Tripp said. State attorney in Union County.

Records show that the Office of the Inspector General of IDHS – the agency’s internal watchdog – investigated more than 1,500 reports on a hotline alleging patient abuse or neglect by employees at Choate over a 10-year period ending in 2021. That’s more than any of the The other 12 are facilities operated by IDHS, some of which have more patients than Choate. These reports include nearly 800 allegations of physical abuse, 100 cases of sexual abuse, and 600 cases of psychological abuse, financial abuse or neglect.

Internal investigators found about 5% of cases were proven, roughly in line with the statewide rate of proof. But Chuat has faced frequent criticism for interfering with his investigations into alleged wrongdoing.

The number of allegations of abuse and neglect from Choate that are reported annually to the inspector general has risen. There were more than 200 reports in fiscal year 2021, more than double the number from fiscal year 2012.

In addition to the charges of violence, reports from the Inspector General and Union District Court files show complaints, which have proven to be documented, that employees tortured and humiliated patients, including one who walked naked in front of his peers because he took too long in the bathroom and another who was forced to drink a full glass of Hot sauce.

Kolias said the agency is concerned about the volume of reports but added that the high number of allegations could be a sign that staff and residents are reporting potential misconduct at a higher rate than people at other facilities.

Blaine Richard with his dog Frankie in a photo by his mother, Amanda Macintosh.

Blaine Richard with his dog Frankie in a photo by his mother, Amanda Macintosh.

Late consequences

In Richard’s case, there was no call to the Inspector General’s abuse hotline even though there was a legal requirement to make that call. The police report showed that at least three shifts of work came and went without the alarm being raised.

When security arrived at the unit Monday morning, Richard greeted the officer and said, “Look what they did to me,” according to an employee who was in the unit but was not authorized to speak publicly.

Fifteen months passed before anyone was arrested. In March 2016, Allen was charged with three felony counts of aggravated battery and intimidation. Later that year, charges were brought against three other employees — Kurt Ellis, Justin Butler and Eric Beetle — for helping to conceal abuse and lying to the police.

But in the end no one was held criminally responsible for the beating. Court records show that Ellis, Butler, and Beetle all struck plea deals for misdemeanours. Nearly seven years after Richard’s assault, Allen pleaded guilty to a felony – not for beating but for destroying evidence by throwing away the towel he was using to get rid of Richard’s blood. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

In an interview with a reporter, Allen acknowledged that Richard had been assaulted but emphasized that it was not by him and refused to answer further questions. Butler did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Ellis and Beetle also did not respond to attempts to reach them, although a union representative said that both were aware of the story.

Blaine Richard's initial statement, which was given to a Center for Mental Health and Development security officer, is included in the Illinois State Police investigation file.

Blaine Richard’s initial statement, which was given to a Center for Mental Health and Development security officer, is included in the Illinois State Police investigation file.

The news organizations’ investigation concluded that this was not the only incident in which the consequences were delayed or minimized. IDHS does not track employee arrests at its mental health and development centers, but court records show that 22 other employees have faced criminal charges since the Reichard case. Of those, 11 pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced charges or probation, seven had pending cases, and four had cases dismissed. He did not spend any time in prison.

The four defendants in Richard’s case continued to collect state salaries for some time after the beatings. Since the incident, Ellis, Butler, and Beetle have received paychecks totaling more than $1 million combined. They also receive their scheduled raises, health insurance benefits, vacation time, and service credit toward their pension.

Records show that John “Mike” Dickerson, the unit supervisor who, according to police records, was involved in restraining Richard, was never charged but was tasked with mowing the lawn two years later. Between the accident and his retirement in December 2017, he received his $168,000 salary, plus insurance and credit for his pension. He now receives $39,000 a year in pensions. Dickerson declined to comment.

Senior officials at IDHS said these cases are anomalies in terms of the amount of time employees spend on paid administrative leave, and a spokesperson said administrative reviews usually do not continue until a criminal investigation is completed.

While Allen was suspended without pay once charges were brought in 2016, prior to that, he remained on the payroll for 15 months after the incident, collecting nearly $56,000 while on administrative leave, IDHS records show.

Meanwhile, Richard was discharged from Schott after the assault, but was readmitted three years earlier after he attacked his mother. The judge deemed him unfit to stand trial, and he lives in the Sycamore Unit, the same building where the assault took place.

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