Strip searches prompt lawsuit
State sought signs of abuse of disabled at Pueblo center; critics say rights violated
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.