Visitors allege institution oversedating children
HANSEN, JANE O.
The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution
The first thing that hits you at the Murphy-Harpst boys' home in Cedartown is the stench of urine from the mattresses. There are few toys and no pictures because, says one little boy who lives there, "we don't have anything."
The privately run Methodist home is one of four programs in Georgia under contract to the state Department of Human Resources (DHR) to provide intermediate residential care to about 30 emotionally disturbed children. The children's ages range from 5 to 15, and most have been abused or neglected by their parents.
But now a growing number of citizens and local officials say the home may be hurting children more than helping them, and they say the DHR has done nothing to address their complaints.
For almost seven months, an assistant district attorney from Cobb County, a local child protective services worker and a group of Cobb County citizens have complained to DHR officials that untrained staff at the home have been drugging small children into a near stupor with various medications, including the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine.
Their allegations focus on "S.," an 8-year-old child who they say has exhibited dangerous signs of Thorazine overdose.
"The child's negligent treatment by this state-supported facility is representative of that given other children at Murphy-Harpst," Assistant District Attorney
Bruce D. Hornbuckle wrote in a formal complaint filed last week with the department's child care licensing section. "Every child in S.'s dormitory unit is on some type of medication. This issue must be investigated."
The complaints are not the first that have been lodged against the facility. Between May 1987 and September 1989, 12 reports of child sexual or physical abuse were filed with the department, according to a report prepared for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the Georgia Open Records Act.
Among the allegations: "October 13, 1988. A former resident of Murphy-Harpst alleged that he witnessed a staff member having anal intercourse with a male resident." The staff member subsequently resigned.
Because of the large number of complaints, at one point the department called in local law enforcement and then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But GBI officials said last week that after failing to substantiate any of the allegations, they closed their case. The DHR took no further action.
Defending center's efforts
John R. Steiner, president of The Murphy-Harpst-Vasti Centers, said no child is overmedicated or poorly treated at either the Cedartown facility or the program's other facility in Thomasville.
"And I feel betrayed that that report has gone out," he said last week. "There was no basis in fact for any material" contained in the complaints. "If we didn't feel like we were doing a good service for these children, I'd close up," said Mr. Steiner, who has worked with troubled children for 20 years.
Most of the children sent to his facility have severe emotional problems, he said. "Some of these youths are experts at telling untrue stories," he wrote in one letter responding to the charges. In another, he describes many of the youngsters as "so hyperactive, angry, aggressive, depressed, impulsive and inattentive that they cannot possibly learn acceptable or alternate behaviors or understand their feelings without some type of medication."
Dr. Douglas G. Greenwell, director of the state Division of Family and Children Services, also defends Murphy-Harpst, which was founded in 1925 as an orphanage.
"I'm not aware of us finding any problems with Murphy-Harpst with regard to this medication issue," he said. "In terms of drugs, I think you're getting into an issue of physician prerogative there."
Nevertheless, state officials acknowledged last week that they have begun formally looking into the complaints concerning S., who is now in a foster home. Friday, officials said a child psychiatrist who works for the department had reviewed S.'s file and found no evidence that he had been oversedated.
Murphy-Harpst is one of the only facilities in the state willing to take children that other programs reject, according to Dr. Greenwell. Because of a "crisis" in state funding for emotionally disturbed children, not only is there a waiting list of children, but "the level of resources is inadequate to buy the kind of care that we believe would be in the best interest of all children," Dr. Greenwell said.
But critics disagree that money is the issue, saying the department has been aware since last July of complaints about overmedication at Murphy-Harpst. As a result of state officials' reluctance to intervene, last month the Cobb County Citizens Review Panel - a group of people appointed to oversee the child welfare system's handling of foster care cases - also filed a formal complaint with the department. The Cedartown home is about 30 miles west of Cobb in Polk County.
`Improper care' alleged
"I assure you that we as a panel are not medical professionals and we cannot tell you whether or not S. is going to be left with permanent damage," Judith Gardner, the panel's chairwoman, wrote in the complaint. "But we can say that this is improper care of a child. We send the children to an intermediate care facility for them to receive help through counseling and other measures. We do not send them to be made zombies for compliance purposes, nor to become addictive personalities."
In Georgia, the decision to administer anti-psychotic drugs at state-supported children's programs is left largely to the psychiatrists who work there, and is not dictated by state policy. At the Methodist Home for Children and Youth in Macon, which takes 14 children similar to those at Murphy-Harpst, no child is on Thorazine, said administrator Steven L. Rumford.
"More than likely, a child who comes to us on medication will be taken off," he said.
Few signs of play apparent
Gazing out a window the public rarely sees in, a group of little boys recently stood waiting for anyone who might drive by the rarely traveled road through the Murphy-Harpst compound.
As Bruce Hornbuckle got out of his car, the front door of Boykin Cottage flew open and a blond-haired child came racing out, throwing himself into the arms of the Cobb County assistant district attorney.
Inside, one 6-year-old, dressed in shorts and cowboy boots, ran up and hugged the young, single prosecutor. "A lot of them have nobody to visit them," Mr. Hornbuckle said.
Boykin Cottage is home to a dozen or so little boys, ages 5 to 11. It is one of three "units" for emotionally disturbed children at Murphy-Harpst, a sleepy campus of reddish brick buildings. In addition to the young boys' home, there's a cottage for teenage boys and one for girls, ages 8 to 14.
Inside and outside Boykin Cottage, there are few signs that this is home to a group of little boys. On this particular day, there are no bicycles strewn on the lawn, no baseball diamonds on the large grassy spaces outside, no pictures on the boys' bedroom walls. These children's prize possession is a collection of bugs squirreled away in a secret hiding place outside that they show to a stranger.
A "timeout" room is dimly lit, unfurnished and windowless. Two heavy bolts are used to lock a child inside. "You hear that term - timeout -and you think they're sitting on a sofa somewhere," Mr. Hornbuckle says.
He said he saw one child dragged across the room and thrown into the room after demanding a dry towel. "That little boy was in there, throwing himself against the door like some type of animal, screaming," he said. "They said his behavior was out of control. I remember thinking, `Why not get him a dry towel?' "
Medication lined up on shelf
In a room at the other end of the cottage, little plastic cups are lined up on a shelf, each marked with a child's name and containing pills such as Thorazine, Ritalin or Mellaril - anti-psychotic or behavior-modification drugs.
Mr. Steiner says only 60 percent of the children at Murphy-Harpst require medication. On this particular day, 10 named cups were on the shelf at Boykin Cottage.
Mr. Hornbuckle met S. in June 1989, when he was prosecuting S.'s father on felony child-abuse charges. Both S. - now 8 - and his 9-year-old sister were physically abused by the man, who pleaded guilty to the charges last summer and is now in prison. He is due to be released this spring.
The child made a special impression on the assistant district attorney, who regularly prosecutes child abusers. While S.'s sister was living with a loving foster family, home for the little boy had been one institution after another, Mr. Hornbuckle said.
The two became good friends, and Mr. Hornbuckle began making the weekly trek to Murphy-Harpst to bring S. to his home for the weekend.
During one of those weekend visits, Mr. Hornbuckle noticed that shortly after getting up mornings, S. would fall back to sleep. At church S. dozed while others his age squirmed.
After learning last July that the 64-pound boy was being given up to 250 milligrams of Thorazine a day, Mr. Hornbuckle asked the Murphy-Harpst staff to try reducing the dosage. "These requests were denied," Mr. Hornbuckle wrote in his complaint.
He said staff members "described a monster" - "a Frankenstein" of a child who suffered from an "attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder" and needed the drug to keep his behavior under control.
"I just don't see his behavior as as big a problem as they do," Mr. Hornbuckle said. "He does the things little boys do."
In addition to Mr. Hornbuckle, the child's caseworker - an employee of the Cobb Department of Family and Children Services - and the foster mother of S.'s sister, told the citizens review panel last August that they believed the child and possibly other children at Murphy-Harpst were being overmedicated.
The same day, they met formally with Murphy-Harpst staff members and the visiting psychiatrist, Dr. Eleanor Allen, who told them they had observed no excessive drowsiness in S. or other symptoms of overdosage.
Two days after that meeting, Mr. Hornbuckle says, he arrived at Murphy-Harpst to pick the child up for a weekend visit and found him passed out on the floor in front of the television set.
"When we walked in, this staff member jumped up, ran to the child, lifted him by the shoulders and stood him on his feet," he writes in his complaint. "S. staggered to a chair, fell into it, and went into a deep sleep. I shook him repeatedly but could not awaken him."
The next week, staff members recommended that Mr. Hornbuckle's visits be cut back to every other weekend. The caseworker refused.
Mr. Hornbuckle also complained the boy was not receiving speech therapy that had been recommended, and he criticized the quality of education provided at the on-campus school.
But he became particularly irate when he learned that the child had threatened to commit suicide, and neither he nor the caseworker had been notified.
"Keeping these incidents a secret from the child's caseworker serves absolutely no valid purpose other than to insulate the institution from necessary scrutiny and questions," he wrote. "I realize we have many failings. However, it seems that the state's over-restrictive confidentiality statutes play a tremendous role in allowing these failings to continue."
Boy's release is criticized
In a recent letter, the center's president, Mr. Steiner wrote that he believes S. "will now be lost. He was very close to completing his treatment. This is a good illustration of how [the Department of Family and Children Services] buckles under as a result of political pressure -in this case an assistant district attorney, Mr. Bruce Hornbuckle."
Last November, against staff recommendations, S. was removed from Murphy-Harpst and placed in a foster home. Since then, he has received no drugs for his behavior. Mr. Hornbuckle and review panel chairwoman Judith Gardner say he has many problems to overcome, but he ismaking friends, attending public school and d oing well.