- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

Maryland’s new deputy secretary of behavioral health and disabilities compiled a record of patient scandals and a whistle-blower lawsuit at a similar position in Delaware over the past nine years.

Renata Henry, 59, was pushed out of Delaware’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health in September after a yearlong legislative probe of patient abuse and neglect culminated in a damning auditor’s report on the handling of patient finances.

Almost immediately, she found a new home in Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“God help Maryland,” said Dr. David Springer, former head of medical staff at the Delaware Psychiatric Center (DPC). Dr. Springer, an outspoken critic of management at Delaware’s only public psychiatric facility, won a federal whistle-blower lawsuit after Ms. Henry fired him in 2000.

Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John Colmers’ decision to hire Ms. Henry was announced with little fanfare.

“We were aware there were concerns and she and others were thoroughly vetted in the hiring process. The overwhelming feedback was that Renata Henry has outstanding leadership and management skills,” said John Hammond, a Maryland health department spokesman.

In August, Delaware House Majority Leader Richard Cathcart, chairman of a special investigative committee, called for Ms. Henry and Health and Social Services Secretary Vince Meconi to resign after the state auditor highlighted possible misuse of patient trust fund accounts by staff at the state hospital. Ms. Henry resigned in September. She did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Mr. Cathcart’s investigation was spurred by a special report in the Wilmington News Journal in July 2007. The article quoted nurses at the facility saying excessive force was used against patients and that staff who spoke out against it had their cars vandalized.

The hospital faced numerous accusations about mistreatment of patients during Ms. Henry’s tenure — including verbal and physical assault by staff, overmedication and safety concerns. One patient said that staff ignored her complaint of sexual abuse by another patient. Reports of abuse, neglect or mistreatment at the hospital more than tripled from2001 to 2006, from 35 to 119.

“More than a year ago, my committee began investigating the DPC, and what we found was astounding,” Mr. Cathcart told the News Journal in August. “We found patients had been abused, neglected and intimidated, and to date, nothing has changed in [the state mental health division] leadership.”

During his 2006 campaign and since taking office last year, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has made a point of attacking his Republican predecessor’s management of state government, frequently lambasting former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s handling of energy issues and land sales.

But the O’Malley administration has stumbled with some personnel choices, even beyond the Henry controversy.

Last November, Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore hired Christopher Perkins to lead the Maryland Victor Cullen Academy for Youth Offenders. However, Mr. Perkins was forced to resign after the Baltimore City Paper revealed that he had been under investigation in Montana after complaints that his staff had abused children.

Mr. Devore, who had been unaware of Mr. Perkins involvement in the probe, instituted criminal background checks for all prospective department employees.

Dr. Springer filed suit against Ms. Henry in 2000, claiming she had not renewed his independent contractor agreement because he had spoken out against staffing shortages and mismanagement at the Delaware Psychiatric Center.

The court awarded Dr. Springer nearly $1 million in 2006, ruling that his First Amendment rights had been violated. Ms. Henry appealed the decision to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, but lost.

“The evidence supports the jury finding that Henry acted at least recklessly or callously, if not intentionally or maliciously, with respect to Dr. Springer’s constitutionally protected rights,” Judge Dolores Sloviter wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel in Springer v. Henry.

In a memo Dr. Springer wrote during his tenure at the psychiatric facility, he stated: “Staff is afraid to speak out on issues affecting patient care and safety, as they are afraid of being punished by the administration.

“Staff has also expressed fear of speaking out and/or disciplining the staff for fear of getting their tires slashed, having feces smeared on their car or worse. The administration has been made repeatedly aware of this problem with no action to date,” he wrote.

“It was corrupt,” said Dr. Springer told The Washington Times. “She would not take the staff shortages seriously, and at the same time, she would not have any hesitation to hire consultants for $250,000 a year when we did not have enough medicine or nursing staff on hand.”

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