St. Elizabeths Hospital is revising some of its visitor and patient protocols after a 56-year-old man committed to the psychiatric facility walked away unnoticed and was found dead days later during last week’s snowstorm.
An internal report on the circumstances that led to Daniel Ellis’ unauthorized departure from the facility is expected to be completed this week, according to Phyllis Jones, spokeswoman for the District’s Department of Behavioral Health.
But in the meantime, the hospital implemented an identification check that could stop others from walking away unnoticed.
“We have 100 percent ID check to get on the campus. So now we are going to require security to check IDs when you leave the campus,” Ms. Jones said.
The identification card checks to leave the facility began Friday, the day after Mr. Ellis was found dead about 2 miles from the hospital grounds. A Metropolitan Police Department report described him as “laying face down and partially covered by snow.” Mr. Ellis was reported missing on Feb. 9 from the hospital, where he had been voluntarily committed on and off for nearly three decades.
But Mr. Ellis isn’t the only person who has recently escaped from the facility, which houses both individuals with serious mental illness and those undergoing court-ordered mental evaluations or care.
Authorities are still looking for patient Eric Izlar, who escaped from the hospital on Dec. 18. Mr. Izlar, 42, was found not guilty by reason of insanity of an aggravated assault charge and committed to the hospital in 1998, Ms. Jones said.
“He was with staff and started to walk away, was followed by staff and ran and was able to elude staff and security,” Ms. Jones said.
The Washington Post first reported Mr. Izlar’s escape Wednesday, citing court records that say he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and that in 2010 he attacked a hospital staff member with a weapon — a charge that landed him in prison for two years before being transferred back into St. Elizabeths.
Mr. Izlar also fled from the hospital in 2007, according to Ms. Jones.
Escapes from the facility are apparently common.
“About once a month someone goes missing and they usually return on their own or the [U.S.] Marshals bring them back,” Ms. Jones said.
As of Wednesday, St. Elizabeths’ patient population was 274 people. Of those, 147 people are considered “forensic patients” who have court-ordered commitments — either for psychological evaluations ahead of their criminal trials or because they were found guilty by reason of insanity and are committed there indefinitely. The remaining 127 patients have not been charged with any crime and have civil commitments.
Mr. Ellis was voluntarily committed to the facility and was allowed access to the grounds while under staff supervision. But his disappearance and death now has staff reviewing the files of all patients who have been given similar privileges to determine whether they are appropriate, Ms. Jones said.
“Not every patient has the approval to sit outside with staff,” Ms. Jones said. “We are going to take a look at the number who do to make sure that is appropriate for their recovery process.”
Such privileges will not be revoked altogether as they are a part of the hospital’s treatment process.
“It’s really frustrating that we incarcerate these people for their own safety, but then the facility doesn’t live up to their responsibility to keep them safe,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.
But as St. Elizabeths reviews its protocols, Mr. Decker said he hopes the recent escapes won’t prompt an overreaction that harms patients.
“I wouldn’t want to see a backlash where they are revoked all privileges,” he said. “These are difficult patients, but there has got to be some balance of freedom.”