The state Department of Health and Environmental Control is investigating allegations that an autistic patient of a residential treatment facility for children and adolescents in Florence was repeatedly bitten and has lost almost 40 pounds during his stay.
A spokesperson for the agency, which licenses the Palmetto Pee Dee Behavioral Health Center, told The Greenville News a complaint was made against the facility last week and is being investigated.
The facility, a private provider in the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs network, also was investigated and cited by DHEC in September after a complaint that a staff member had "popped" the hand of a patient who was acting out, records show.
"DHEC investigated that complaint and found two violations: (1) the facility’s failure to submit an incident report to DHEC within 24 hours; and (2) the facility failed to ensure a resident’s right to be free from harm," said spokesperson Adrianna Bradley. "The facility submitted an acceptable plan of correction for the cited violations."
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A spokeswoman for the facility issued a statement about the most recent allegations saying the company was dedicated to patient care.
"The care and safety of our patients, including their privacy, is Palmetto Pee Dee Behavioral Health’s top priority," Halle Michling, director of business development for the facility, said in a statement. "Due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the federal law that establishes standards for the privacy of health information, the facility is precluded from discussing any details regarding the care and treatment of any patient."
She said additionally that the facility "remains dedicated and committed to its mission of providing the highest quality of care to its patients and to offering services that improve the overall health and well-being of patients and their families."
Liane Hughes Turner, the mother of the autistic patient, also alleges that the facility has refused to provide her with incident reports of the biting, even though she is his legal guardian.
The facility, according to its website, handles patients of ages 7-21 with various conditions, including intellectual disabilities and autism.
According to the website, it is part of the national chain Universal Health Services, which was the subject of a critical investigative report last week by BuzzFeed, a report the company has said "we dispute and deny."
UHS patients consistently report high levels of satisfaction with the care they receive, according to the company. In 2015, according to the company, UHS patient satisfaction survey scores averaged 4.5 out of 5. In 2015, UHS Behavioral Health facilities treated almost 450,000 inpatients, amounting to over 5.8 million patient days, the company said.
Turner said her son was placed there in April by a coordinator for the Richland-Lexington Disabilities and Special Needs Board.
The executive director of that agency, Mary Leitner, told The News she was prohibited from discussing any individual case. She said the agency does look into complaints and can refer them to the appropriate authorities, including the State Law Enforcement Division.
Turner said her 20-year-old son, who has the mind of a 3-4-year-old, has not been unhappy with the facility. But she has been alarmed by his weight loss and the bite injuries, as well as what she sees as inattention to her son's condition.
She said it was she who pointed out that a bite wound on his shoulder was infected, prompting a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic. But she said the prescription could not be found and another was recently written.
"I raised a special needs son for 16 years by myself," she said. "I put him through school. I put him through therapy. He had heart problems when he was born. He survived all of that because of me. If I don't advocate for him, then who will?"
She said her son is a picky eater, but when she eats with him outside the facility he eats an entire meal. She said she had given the facility a list of what he eats and she believes the facility should have had plenty of food on that list.
"It's not that hard to have peanut butter and bread on hand," she said.
Turner said she attended a Nov. 22 treatment team meeting at the facility and the doctor prescribed peanut butter sandwiches for snacks and meals for her son.
"They went on Dec. 5, 14 days later, and bought a jar of peanut butter," she said.
She said her son now weighs 96 pounds, almost 40 pounds lighter than he did upon admission. She said he is 5 feet tall.
"He is very thin," she said.
Turner said her son has been bitten four to five times by another child or children at the facility during the past several months and had been bitten previously at the facility. Staff there, she said, told her they had separated the child or children responsible.
But on Nov. 22 she spotted an infection on a bite wound on her son's shoulder. She took photos of the bite marks as well as of his weight loss and showed them to the newspaper.
She also mentioned the biting to staff. At the treatment meeting, she said, she mentioned the infection to the doctor and he looked at the wound and prescribed an antibiotic.
According to DHEC records of the September investigation, a staff member who struck the hand of a resident said he did so because the resident was biting his hands.
Turner said she asked officials at the facility for incident reports of the biting of her son and was told she could not have them. She has since filled out paperwork to get a copy of his medical charts. She said she wonders what is in the incident reports that the facility does not want her to see.
She said she has noticed that her son's face and clothes are often dirty and his teeth "junked up" when she picks him up. Turner said she has mentioned the dirtiness to staff.
She said her son was raised at home until he was 16 and she could no longer handle him.
"He's always been extremely well cared for and the center of everyone's attention," she said. "He's very likable. He does have some behavioral issues that we could not handle at home. When he does not have the behavioral issues, he's wonderful to be around."
Turner said she is frustrated.
"I don't know what I have to do to get help for him or who I need to talk to because I keep getting referred to someone else," she said. "He cannot keep losing weight or he will die."