Lawsuit: Hospital Failed to Protect Disabled Girl from 2 Sexual Assaults

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A Twin Cities hospital with a history of security breakdowns failed to protect a teenage girl with developmental disabilities from being sexually assaulted twice by an adult patient, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Hennepin County.

The 15-year-old girl was rushed to the emergency room at the University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview for a mental health crisis on Nov. 8 last year.

She was admitted for observation and monitoring but remained in the hospital’s emergency department “because there were a lack of available beds in the pediatric psychiatric unit,” according to the suit.

Across the hall from the girl’s room, Jamal Strong was also being treated for a mental health crisis. The 29-year-old entered the girl’s room early in the morning on Nov. 9 and sexually assaulted her, according to a criminal complaint filed in Hennepin County.

“The female child was shaken and terrified while this was occurring,” the complaint stated, adding the girl reported she told Strong “no” several times.

Strong was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct but has since been civilly committed.

Roberta Opheim, Minnesota’s Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, said it’s a “fundamental premise” that patients like Strong should not be placed near children.

"The needs of children with mental health issues are different than the needs of adults," Opheim said.

In a statement, Camie Melton Hanily, a Fairview spokesperson, said she cannot comment on specific events but that, “The clinical needs of patients and availability of services sometimes requires the co-location of adults and children.”

Strong assaulted the girl for approximately 15 minutes before he was found by hospital staff and removed from the room, according to the lawsuit.

The suit stated the girl was sexually assaulted again when “incredibly, Strong was able to reenter (the victim’s) room only five minutes later.”

Jeffrey Storms, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the girl’s family, said the hospital’s surveillance video shows Strong remained in the room undetected for another 27 minutes.

"This man is able to attack this child for almost half an hour without anyone properly responding — there is no way anyone could have been watching the video closely," Storms said.

The hospital has failed to monitor other mentally ill patients, according to state and federal records reviewed by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

In April 2015, a patient suffering heroin withdrawals and hallucinations entered another patient’s room, crawled into bed and assaulted her.

In December 2015, a 13-year-old patient disappeared after he was allowed to leave a secure psychiatric unit during an outing.

The teenage boy was later found on the Franklin Avenue Bridge in hospital scrubs and socks in near-freezing temperatures.

After that incident, federal investigators found deficiencies in the hospital that posed an “immediate jeopardy” to patient safety.

Fairview has made recent improvements to patient monitoring, including enhanced video monitoring, Melton Hanily said.

She did not comment on any specific incidents but said in her statement that patient safety is of the “utmost importance.”

“Despite our best efforts, incidents can occur, and we are sincerely sorry when they do,” Melton Hanily wrote.

RELATED: Parent Claims Child Escaped Fairview

Meanwhile, last month, four mentally ill children escaped in two separate cases from a locked pediatric behavioral wing of the hospital, according to a source with direct knowledge of the incidents.

Opheim said the pattern of failing to monitor patients will likely continue as long as emergency rooms are treated like holding tanks for the mentally ill.

"If we’re stuck with the number of beds, if there’s no incentive to anybody to build any more, and no staff to staff them, then we’re going to stay in this crisis, and we’re stuck,” she said.

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Fairview’s full statement:

Keeping patients safe is of the utmost importance to us. Despite our best efforts, incidents can occur, and we are sincerely sorry when they do. While we are not able talk about private patient information or specific events, we assure you that safety concerns are immediately investigated, we look for ways to improve our procedures, and we take additional actions as circumstances warrant. We continually strive to improve our clinical care and some recent improvements include increasing patient monitoring, ensuring the most appropriate patient placement based on patient and clinical needs whenever possible, enhancing how we use video monitoring of patients and improving staff training.

As one of the largest behavioral health services providers in the five-state area, we are committed to continually improving our services to do all we can to support the complex behavioral health needs of the communities we serve.