Idaho Department of Health and Welfare began investigating complaints of abuse at SWITC in mid-2017

By Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun, May 23, 2023

The state of Idaho will pay $1.2 million and allow a disability rights group to monitor how patients are treated at a state-run center for people with developmental disabilities. That agreement ends four years of litigation between the state and six families of vulnerable Idahoans who were abused, neglected or died at the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa.

The center is currently licensed to care for 18 residents. It had 14 residents as of Monday, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which operates the facility.

Attorneys for the families said residents of the treatment center experienced “pervasive abuse and neglect.” The state agreed that it will comply with federal and state laws and agreed to give DisAbility Rights Idaho open access to the center and its records.

“This settlement speaks to the intolerance of mistreating individuals with developmental disabilities …” Char Quade, managing partner at the Boise firm CK Quade Law, said in a news release.

It requires “vital (dialogue) with the disabilities community to ensure the proper operation and management of the state’s treatment center, so that no further abuse or neglect will occur to our vulnerable citizens,” she said.

Shamus O’Meara, whose Minneapolis law firm O’Meara Wagner also represented the families, said the settlement brings an end to “a long legal road for families who suffered such unbelievable abuse, injury and death of their loved ones.”

The families who sued included those of Drew Rinehart, who died at the facility in 2017; and Brandon Buchanan, a child whose mother said SWITC staff put him in “situations where he became injured, resulting in serious head injuries and scars.”

Lawsuit ends yearslong litigation over SWITC abuse claims

The lawsuit was one of several major turning points for Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in the late 2010s.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare began investigating complaints of abuse at SWITC in mid-2017.

At the time, 25 residents lived at the facility. The internal investigation confirmed that six employees — at the time, about 5% of the facility’s total workforce — had abused residents. All six of the staffers quit or were fired.

A department spokesperson told the Idaho Statesman then that the abuse was mostly psychological — bullying and insulting residents — but also included physical abuse, such as employees slapping or using force on residents.

Shortly after Health and Welfare opened that investigation, 27-year-old resident Drew Rinehart died suddenly while receiving care at the facility. Police considered it a “suspicious death,” and records later showed that Rinehart was left unmonitored for hours.

DisAbility Rights Idaho — the group that now has a court-issued pass to monitor care at SWITC — issued a report in 2018 that concluded the facility “consistently failed to offer the treatment, services and protections that it is by law obligated to provide those in its care” and didn’t protect residents from abuse, neglect and injury.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare disputed some of the report’s findings. It argued, too, that some of the alarming findings in the report lacked context.

Health and Welfare told the Idaho Statesman that, in 2017, staff had experienced “an average of over 70 assaults” per month from residents at the facility. “Client-to-client assaults averaged a little over 26 per month,” the department said, according to the Statesman reports. “This means we regularly have staff out on medical leave and high turnover in our direct care staff.”

The state’s nonpartisan watchdog arm also raised alarm about operations at SWITC. The Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations’ report from January 2019 said the treatment center was in a cycle of “organizational trauma” partly caused by “haphazard” downsizing and other problems.

“SWITC has radically downsized over the past several decades. Downsizing is necessarily difficult, but struggles were exacerbated by neglect from the department and the loss of institutional knowledge,” the report said.

Health and Welfare on settlement: ‘Does not include any admission of liability’

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is responsible for inspecting health care facilities statewide to ensure they comply with federal and state laws and rules.

Unlike most other facilities, Southwest Idaho Treatment Center is operated and staffed by the department, too — and few outside organizations or agencies had any oversight power to ensure SWITC was running as it should.

Greg Stahl, a spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, told the Idaho Capital Sun on Monday that operational changes at Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in recent years have improved treatment for residents. Stahl didn’t say what has changed, but he noted the center has passed its recent inspections.

The facility has about half the number of residents it had five years ago. Still, it has struggled with staffing shortages and compliance issues as recently as 2021.

“SWITC has made dramatic improvements over the past few years as recognized by two consecutive citation-free facility surveys in 2022 and 2023,” the emailed statement said. “These improvements allowed SWITC to agree to a settlement that does not include any admission of liability, and the terms don’t include court monitoring.”

FEATURED IMAGE:  The Southwest Idaho Treatment Center, based in Nampa, is a temporary home to people who are intellectually disabled and mentally ill who cannot stay in an in-home situation, often because of dangerous or aggressive behaviors. (Photo courtesy of the Idaho Office for Performance Evaluations)

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