Strip searches prompt law­suit

State sought signs of abuse of dis­abled at Pue­blo cen­ter; crit­ics say rights vi­o­lated

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Christo­pher N. Osher

The con­sti­tu­tional rights of in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled peo­ple at a state-run cen­ter in Pue­blo were vi­o­lated when of­fi­cials strip searched them to de­ter­mine whether they had been abused, a law­suit filed Wed­nes­day on be­half of 18 res­i­dents al­leges.

“There was no rea­son­able, or even ar­guably rea­son­able, jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the grossly in­tru­sive and co­er­cive man­ner in which the searches were con­ducted, or their ex­tremely sweep­ing breadth,” the law­suit filed in Pue­blo County Dis­trict Court states.

In March 2015, the Colorado Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices strip searched 62 res­i­dents at the Pue­blo Re­gional Cen­ter for the se­verely in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled. The state’s pub­lic health depart­ment later de­ter­mined the searches “re­sulted in dis­re­gard of in­di­vid­ual rights in­clud­ing pri­vacy, dig­nity and re­spect” and “re­sulted in in­di­vid­u­als be­ing scared and con­fused and some re­mained ag­i­tated days af­ter the inspections took place.”

DHS spokes­woman Laura Morsch-Babu said of­fi­cials were still re­view­ing the law­suit and would have no comment.

Some of the res­i­dents had ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual abuse in the past. Dur­ing the searches, some were dis­robed and their gen­i­talia and but­tocks were phys­i­cally in­spected. The law­suit is be­ing han­dled by Mari New­man, a promi­nent civil rights at­tor­ney in Den­ver.

Sev­eral res­i­dents later told dis­abil­ity ad­vo­cates that they asked for the strip searches to stop, but of­fi­cials ig­nored their pleas.

“The strip searches were not merely a prod­uct of pro­ce­dural lazi­ness or neg­li­gence, but rather de­fen­dants’ overt and in­ten­tional de­ci­sion to flout the law,” the law­suit states.

It also states that sev­eral res­i­dents con­tinue to strug­gle from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Five family mem­bers who were legal guardians also are plain­tiffs and as­sert they should have been con­tacted be­fore the searches oc­curred.

“These com­pul­sory, un­law­ful strip searches and the as­so­ci­ated non­con­sen­sual gen­i­tal con­tact fore­see­ably caused pro­found dis­tress to the vic­tims who were strip searched, many of whom have his­to­ries of phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse, and all of whom are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to suf­fer­ing dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects from such a brazen ex­ploita­tion of power,” the law­suit states.

DHS of­fi­cials have said they con­ducted the searches be­cause they feared res­i­dents at the cen­ter were be­ing sub­jected to on­go­ing phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse that staff mem­bers were cover­ing up. They added that the site visit and body checks re­sulted in the

dis­cov­ery of 10 new al­le­ga­tions of mis­treat­ment, which were for­warded to the Pue­blo Sher­iff’s Of­fice. A re­cent in­ves­tiga­tive re­port by The Den­ver Post found that only one staffer has been con­victed of a crim­i­nal charge, and that was for a petty of­fense charge of be­ing too loud in a pub­lic place.

A fed­eral au­dit into the cen­ter found that the strip searches vi­o­lated the rights of res­i­dents, who feared they could not refuse to par­tic­i­pate in them. That au­dit also found res­i­dents had been sub­jected to on­go­ing sex­ual and phys­i­cal abuse so se­vere that Colorado should re­pay mil­lions in Med­i­caid fund­ing spent at the cen­ter. Fed­eral of­fi­cials also have moved to bar new res­i­dents from be­ing ad­mit­ted to the cen­ter be­cause they con­tend the state has not yet fixed is­sues.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials de­ter­mined that nu­mer­ous in­ci­dents “that gave rise to the body au­dits” were sub­stan­ti­ated and “clearly posed a risk to the health and safety” of res­i­dents. Also, their on-site re­view “re­vealed that a num­ber of se­ri­ous in­ci­dents have con­tin­ued to oc­cur.”

State of­fi­cials say they have im­proved over­sight of the cen­ter but still are work­ing on a stream­lined sys­tem for iden­ti­fy­ing abuse at such fa­cil­i­ties in the state.

The law­suit names as de­fen­dants Gov. John Hick­en­looper, Colorado Hu­man Ser­vices ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Reg­gie Bicha and 13 other of­fi­cials, as well as at least 10 other un­named of­fi­cials.

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