Sexual Abuse in Psychiatric Treatment Facilities
Psychiatric facilities are institutions built to help patients with mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues and provide a safe place for them. Unfortunately, sexual violence and sexual offenses in psychiatric facilities have been a prominent issue, and these sexual behavior problems have not received adequate attention from regulators, researchers, and the medical facilities themselves.
A psychiatric facility patient is already in a vulnerable position, often coping with a mental health disorder and in need of direction. However, many psychiatric institution employees take advantage of this vulnerability and sexually abuse patients, even though the facility itself is meant to be a secure environment and home for those with psychiatric issues. If someone abused you or a family member while in a psychiatric facility, resource treatment center, or other residential treatment center, you do not have to go through the healing process alone. You have legal rights and may be entitled to compensation.
How common is sex abuse at psychiatric treatment centers?
The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) is a watchdog organization that has investigated and exposed abusive experiences in the mental health industry. Based on recent research, the organization estimated that the rate of sexual crimes perpetrated by psychiatrists is 37 times greater than the rate of rape and other forms of sexual assault in the general community.
The CCHR further documented 21 incidents of alleged sexual assaults against patients in just one chain of for-profit psychiatric-behavioral hospitals. Some of these instances include:
- Two hospital employees sexually abused residents and received a conviction and jail sentence for a combined 35 years.
- Two facilities closing down due to sexual abuse claims and other allegations.
- A mental health technician at a Girls Juvenile Residential Facility in Florida receiving a 25-year prison sentence for sexually abusing six youth girls.
Further, a survey in the United States of psychiatrist-patient sexual relations found that:
- 73% of psychiatrists that admitted to having sexual contact with clients claimed it was out of “love” or “pleasure.”
- 19% of psychiatrists surveyed claimed the sexual relations were to “enhance the patient’s self-esteem,” provide a “restitutive emotional experience for the patient,” or that it was just a “judgment lapse.”
Psychiatrists are not the only perpetrators though. Other mental health professionals and therapists have abused psychiatric patients in residential treatment facilities and other treatment programs throughout the country.
Why is sex abuse in psychiatric facilities common?
Sexual violence and abuse in psychiatric facilities and residential treatment centers have been an unspoken yet common occurrence, especially compared to other places with a history of sexual abuse. This topic of sexual abuse against mental health patients did not even appear in professional literature until 1976, when the Journal of Mental Health Administration published the article “Rape accusations in psychiatric hospitals: Institutional dynamics in crisis.”
While there is no single reason for the high rate of sexual abuse in mental hospitals, a significant issue is that U.S. psychiatric facilities focus primarily on minimizing restraints for patients and preventing suicide. Far less attention is paid to sexual safety, even though sexual abuse, committed by the facility’s employees or other patients, happens much more frequently than suicides.
Another significant factor is the fact that many inpatients experience severe mental illnesses. Some of these mental illnesses include:
- Psychiatric disorders
- Personality disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Intellectual disability
- Substance use disorder
- Anxiety issues
- Other mental health issues, mental health conditions, and mental health problems
These mental illnesses can be high risk factors for the inpatients since they may cause reduced awareness, hyper-sexual feelings, or impaired judgment, making it difficult for the patients to recall and report the abuse. While mental health care facilities and individual therapy clinics are meant to protect all patients, including adolescents, teens, younger children, older children, young adults, and adults, the problematic sexual behavior within today’s modern world and residential programs puts these patients at severe risk. The patients might not even realize someone is sexually abusing them in the moment of the act, which makes them prime victims of sexual assault.
Another issue that arises in the world of mental health treatment is the fact that when victims do come forward to file a claim or press charges, law enforcement authorities often assume that the sexual assault victims are unreliable witnesses, even when they present convincing evidence. This can lead to additional behavioral problems, substance abuse issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within patients. Even further, staff members in medical care often lack specific training and falsely believe that if they report an assault to authorities, they will be blamed or be dragged into civil litigation. Finally, psychiatric facilities tend to be isolated worlds, making it challenging to complete further studies, investigations, and evaluations, outside of the limited exceptions.
Psychiatric Facility Sex Abuse Cases
While the number of cases and instances of sexual misconduct in mental health hospitals and group homes is likely underreported, some cases have made headlines in recent years. These examples include:
- At the Timberlawn hospital in Texas, five women came forward, including a young girl in her adolescent years, to report that they experienced sexual abuse while in the hospital. The allegations claim that another patient came into their hospital room and raped them. The allegations date back to 2014, and the facility is now on probation with state hospital regulators.
- A Ventura County psychiatric hospital mental health worker named Juan Valencia pled guilty to sex crimes against female patients at the hospital. Though Valencia is serving more than six years in jail, the young women sued Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital and its parent company, Michigan-based Signature Healthcare Services, in 2019. They claim that the company hired Valencia, even though he had a history of sex crimes, and the company failed to properly supervise him while he worked at the psychiatric facility.
- In 2009, the federal government found a pattern of sexual assault among fellow patients in the psychiatric unit of a city-run Brooklyn hospital, the Kings County Hospital Center.
- In Memphis, Tennessee, two former Saint Francis Hospital employees, Nigel Johnson and Jarvis Beck, were charged with statutory rape by a person in a position of authority. The two abusers took turns having sex with a 15-year-old female patient, who was receiving inpatient treatment for suicidal thoughts.
In Brattleboro, Vermont, Robert Havens was a mental health worker at the Brattleboro Retreat. Havens was arrested after sexually assaulting a female patient under the age of 16 while she was a patient at the center. The victim stated they never had sex, but “sexual acts did happen,” and that it “felt like a relationship… [Havens was] one of the only people I trusted.”
What is sexual abuse?
As you can see from the above content, sexual abuse does not always mean rape or penetration. The American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” The critical thing to note is that any sexual touching or acts between a child and an adult are considered sexual abuse.
Most victims of sexual abuse do know their perpetrators, and the abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors. Sexual abuse can consist of touching someone in a sexual manner, forcing a victim to touch another person in a sexual way, or making a victim watch sexual activity.
The FBI redefined the definition of rape in 2012 as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Again, note that children cannot give consent in any capacity.
Patients on a treatment plan in residential care facilities can also experience sexual assault and sexual violence. Sexual assault encompasses a range of criminal acts, from unwanted touching, unwanted kissing, rubbing or fondling, groping, or forcing someone to touch the abuser in a sexual way. Sexual violence is broader in scope than sexual assault. It includes insistent pressure to the victim, abusive comments, false promises, reputational threats, and other means to coerce a victim into sexual acts. Sexual violence can also include noncontact acts, such as exposing oneself, secretly viewing others naked, catcalls, whistles, or other acts that objectivity and victimize women and other victims.
Who are the perpetrators of sex abuse in psychiatric treatment centers?
A perpetrator can be anyone who has close contact with patients at psychiatric treatment centers. This can includes personnel, hospital staff, clinical social workers, physicians, medical professionals, employees, and other patients. Hospitals are often underfunded and understaffed, leading to inadequate supervisory procedures and high vulnerability for patients. These patients should be able to trust that they are safe as they seek help in working towards a goal of mental stability. Unfortunately, based on multiple factors, the patients’ vulnerability is often taken advantage of by those around them in these facilities.
Who is responsible for sexual abuse and sexual violence in mental hospitals?
Sexual abuse survivors have legal rights to hold perpetrators responsible. Besides holding the abusers themselves liable, victims can also pursue claims against:
- The Psychiatric Facility. The psychiatric facility itself has a duty to protect its patients and keep them safe. These duties include adequately vetting employees, conducting thorough background checks (including criminal background checks), and implementing supervision procedures to ensure that abuse does not happen. If a psychiatric facility fails to implement these measures and hospital patients are sexually abused, the facility could potentially be held liable for the victim’s abuse.
- The Hospital. Similar to the psychiatric facility, if a hospital or parent company owns the psychiatric facility, this company can potentially be held liable as well. The hospital is required to have policies in place to prevent and protect patients from abuse. If sexual abuse occurs, then victims could potentially find the hospital at fault for their injuries.
- Supervisors at the Facility. Supervisors are required to keep patients safe from abuse from employees and other patients. If a supervisor knew or had reason to know that someone was sexually abusing an inpatient but failed to do anything about it, that supervisor can potentially be held liable as well.
Both state law and federal law may apply to your case. If you or a loved one was a victim of sexual abuse, it is crucial to consult with experienced sexual abuse lawyers and attorneys to learn about your rights.
What duties do psychiatric treatment facilities have to protect their patients?
As mentioned, psychiatric treatment facilities are required to implement specific policies and procedures to ensure the safety of their patients. Some of these duties include:
- Providing adequate safeguards for the patients
- Having preventative measures in place to prevent any form of sexual abuse against patients (i.e., ensuring that employees, staff members, and patients are not sex offenders and are not committing sexual problematic behavior)
- Creating and enforcing supervision policies to protect patients from abuse
- Having proper security on the mental facility grounds
- Implementing and continuously enforcing training for employees on how to prevent sexual abuse
- Creating reporting policies for employees, staff members, patients, and family members of patients to be able to report any abuse or suspected abuse
How can psychiatric treatment facilities prevent sexual abuse in their facilities?
Psychiatric facilities must abide by each of the duties described above to better protect their patients. The leadership and administration of these facilities must also make efforts to advocate for better funding for the facility. By receiving more money, facilities can improve their hiring practices and prevent understaffing, which often allows abuse to go unnoticed or underreported. With more funding, facilities can also hire more people to better supervise the facilities and implement better security measures, which will have a high impact on inpatient safety.
Further, the facilities must adequately train employees and staff. Again, training procedures must be in place for employees to understand the prevalence of sexual abuse in mental health facilities, prevent the abuse, and help victims who have been abused.
What should I do if I was sexually abused while in a psychiatric treatment facility?
The good news is that if you or a loved one was sexually abused while in a psychiatric treatment facility, you have legal rights to help you obtain justice against your abuser and the institution that allowed the abuse to happen.
The first and most crucial step is to ensure that you are safe. Receive any medical attention that you might need to make sure that you are healthy and to have any injuries looked at. Also, sexual abuse treatment centers can help you recover from any emotional trauma associated with the experiences.
The next step is to file a report with local law enforcement authorities. This report will allow you to pursue both criminal and civil charges against the abuser, as well as civil charges against the mental health facility.
You will need to gather all of the relevant evidence to support your claim, including:
- Medical records, medical bills, and other medical expenses
- Any treatment expenses
- Any lost wages
- Any therapy notes describing the pain and suffering you’ve endured (non-economic damages)
- Any other evidence that can help determine the amount of compensation you may be entitled to
This can seem like an overwhelming process, which is why it is crucial to contact experienced sexual abuse attorneys to help you navigate through the complex legal procedures. You do not have to go through the journey of receiving justice and compensation to help with your healing journey alone.
Contact Herman Law through our website form to receive a free case evaluation and learn about your legal rights.