Jasper Mountain hit with suit over injuries
Diane Dietz / The Register-Guard
December 12, 2007
One year after a rash of broken bones brought intense scrutiny to the Jasper Mountain treatment home for abused children, the controversy has not gone away.
Guardians of three children - one suffered a broken arm, one a broken wrist and one a broken ankle - are now suing the home and seeking $200,000 for each child for suffering, plus medical expenses.
Jasper Mountain Executive Director Dave Ziegler, meanwhile, continues to spar with child welfare officials.
He accuses the government of overstepping its authority and being unfair to Jasper Mountain. And he's got the ears - if not the sympathies - of some local lawmakers.
State officials say they're just doing their job.
"Our interest remains that (Jasper Mountain) work with the children in a way that's safe for children, and that children are not being injured by program staff. That is always our first and foremost concern," said Madeline Olson, assistant administrator of the state Addictions and Mental Health Division.
The public trouble began at Jasper Mountain - a well-known, 25-year-old organization that treats 20 severely abused and disturbed children in its residential program in a rural setting off Jasper-Lowell Road south of Springfield - with injuries that occurred in the context of staff members trying to calm children when they had emotional outbursts, according to state records.
In December 2005, an 11-year-old child suffered a broken ankle when he was threatening younger children, according to the agency.
A staff member asked the child to move away. The child took one step onto a nearby stair, dropped his weight and broke his ankle, according to the agency.
In March 2006, a 12-year-old girl's upper arm was broken in two places after a staff member placed the arm behind the child's back and held it there to control where she was going during a meltdown. The break required surgery.
In August 2006, a 12-year-old boy suffered a broken wrist after staff members delivered the news that his mother had died, according to Jasper Mountain officials. The boy ran out the door of the residence, turned and braced the door closed with his arms. When staff chased after him and pushed on the door, the force snapped the boy's wrist.
All three children eventually left Jasper Mountain, said their attorney, David Paul of Portland. Paul is now suing Jasper Mountain in Lane County Circuit Court.
"I'm not going to necessarily prove they were abused, but I'm going to prove they weren't given appropriate care. And that's the standard here, especially when you're taking care of children," Paul said.
But Ziegler said it's really the promise of money that's driving the lawsuit. Paul "stepped forward and talked the families of the kids into getting some money out of this," he said.
The three incidents within a nine-month period sparked a wave of investigations by five state and federal agencies, including one by the state Child Protective Services and one on behalf of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Investigators criticized Jasper Mountain about its use of containment holds, saying they should be used in emergencies only, and that a second staff member should be on hand during holds to monitor the child's well-being.
Investigators discovered that Jasper Mountain was relying on an improper restraining hold, which involved putting a child's arm behind the child's back and compelling the child to walk.
Child protective services eventually ruled that each allegation of child abuse stemming from the broken bones were "unfounded" and that using the improper hold was not - by itself - the basis for a finding of abuse, according to state documents.
This year, however, another wing of the Human Services Department called Addictions and Mental Health, which is in charge of certifying the therapy at institutions, is continuing to scrutinize Jasper Mountain.
A pair of consultants - including University of Oregon associate professor Dan Close - is studying the program and is expected to produce a report in January.
"It's to get us all comfortable with how they go about using any kind of physical restraint," said Bob Nikkel, administrator of the mental health unit.
"There's a place, I guess, for some kind of physical restraint. If there's imminent danger, people need to do something. (But) there's so much work that can be done with kids in programs to help them stave off getting to that point. That's where we're trying to get."
The use of restraining holds is a controversial issue nationwide. Government agencies are moving toward a position that restraining holds should be reserved for rare circumstances.
But Ziegler is a nationally known proponent of using restraining holds for therapeutic purposes.
"What (the state) would love to see is for us to negotiate and wheel and deal with kids and never have another restraint ever," Ziegler said.
"That's a naive stance. There are therapeutic benefits to drawing a line for kids and not letting violent kids get violent to themselves and get violent to others and, at times, that requires physical direction."
In the past year, in the wake of the Jasper Mountain injuries, the state's child protection agency revamped the way it responds to allegations of child abuse when the child is a resident of a treatment program.
In early December, the child welfare agency began reassigning such cases from workers who monitor children in private homes to investigators who normally scrutinize allegations of abuse at big institutions such as adult psychiatric hospitals.
The switch took effect on Dec. 3. Three days later, the unit opened a sex-abuse investigation at Jasper Mountain, Ziegler said.
In his view, he said, that's a sign that state officials are out to get the agency.
"A 4-year-old has disclosed that another 4-year-old did something to him in June of last year," Ziegler said. "I also think he said he was called `stupid' by one of the staff."
Eva Kutas, head of the state investigative unit, said she is legally barred from commenting about the situation.
In the courts, meanwhile, the civil case was filed in July in Multnomah County but was transferred in November to Lane County at the request of Jasper Mountain's lawyer.
No trial date has been set. Both sides say it's likely that they'll settle out of court.
The state's earlier determination that the Jasper Mountain injuries were not the result of child abuse will not hurt the civil case, attorney Paul said.
While Ziegler takes on state bureaucrats, the staff at Jasper Mountain is making improvements, said Bob Joondeph, executive director of the Oregon Advocacy Center, which is congressionally mandated to monitor the welfare of mentally ill people in institutions, including Jasper Mountain,
"They're making the changes. Their staff are retraining," Joondeph said. "It's as if the clinical and line staff are cooperating and working positively, and (Ziegler) has just got some axes to grind of his own."
For a second time, Ziegler is calling on state lawmakers for help. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, met with Ziegler and top child-welfare officials in Salem last February. Prozanski said there may soon be a second round of meetings with top officials.
Prozanski said he doesn't know whether Jasper Mountain is being singled out by regulators or whether there's a legitimate reason for the state's concern. Prozanski said he's seen no evidence that the children have been mistreated at Jasper Mountain.
"My perspective is that they are the certified smart people on both sides. They should be able to sit down at a table. They should be able to work out whatever the action plans are (and) address the issues of concern," he said.