- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 26, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - An Arkansas woman choked to death during a seizure at a state-run human development center because staff thought she was “faking,” a disability rights advocacy group concluded in a report released Tuesday.

Disability Rights Arkansas, a nonprofit that advocates for protections for people with disabilities, investigated the February 2015 death of a 24-year-old identified only as Jane at the Booneville Human Development Center about 130 miles west of Little Rock. The group says the death was avoidable and the result of a “dangerous” treatment plan that “ignored serious medical issues and punished her for seeking attention.”

Disability Rights Arkansas’ “investigation revealed that not only was Jane the victim of excessive restraint, she also was the victim of dangerous ‘treatment’ that led to the development and implementation of a Behavior Treatment Program that ignored serious medical concerns, including Jane’s known risk of choking and history of seizure episodes that included falling, jerking and vomiting,” the report summary said.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services runs the center, which is one of five in the state that provide 24-hour care to people with severe physical or mental disabilities.

DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said under federal law the department cannot release medical records even after a resident’s death, including information on how staff responded during any incident.

“Unfortunately, that means DHS is barred by law from providing the details of care provided to the resident featured in the report issued by the Disability Rights of Arkansas today. DHS cannot legally provide information about how it responded to the incident nor can it point out any inaccuracies in the report,” Webb wrote in an emailed response to The Associated Press. “We at DHS take the death of any resident seriously and a thorough review is conducted to identify any facility or staffing issues that may have contributed to the death.”

The report cited medical records and interviews with staff members and the woman’s family. An investigator for the group said physicians had ordered choking and seizure precautions for the woman, but staff implemented a behavior treatment program that “emphasized ignoring any behavior that resembled a seizure” because they believed the woman was faking seizures to gain attention.

Webb wrote in her response that the advocacy group’s report says staff checked the woman’s airway, checked that she was breathing and performed CPR until emergency medical staff could arrive.

The advocacy group has released several reports raising concerns about conditions or treatment at the Booneville center in the last two years, advocating ultimately that the center be closed. In January 2015, the group cited concerns about dilapidated buildings and bad physical conditions at the center. And earlier this month, the group released a report that showed the Booneville center used physical and chemical restraints more frequently on the about 125 residential patients than the state’s other four centers.

The investigative report asks the state to hire an independent expert to review and recommend improvements for treatment at the facility, individually review each resident’s treatment and needs, implement an independent review process for treatment and other decisions, and implement recommendations from the group’s report on excessive restraints at the facility.

Webb said the department’s division director has asked to meet with the advocacy group to discuss the facility, but the group has not responded.

Disability Rights Arkansas spokesman Justin Nickels said the group had already spoken with DHS and planned to do so again.

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