Improper use of restraints sparks federal lawsuit

James and Bradley Jensen, shown here, are among the families involved in the lawsuit. The Brinker/Allen family is pictured elsewhere in this issue.
James and Bradley Jensen, shown here, are among the families involved in the lawsuit. The Brinker/Allen family is pictured elsewhere in this issue.

Use of restraints and placement of patients in seclusion at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) has prompted a federal class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed July 10 in U.S. Federal District Court in St. Paul is requesting class action certification on behalf of people with developmental disabilities who were restrained at a state mental health treatment facility in Cambridge.

The lawsuit states that METO, a program of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, routinely restrained patients in a prone face-down position and placed them in metal handcuffs and leg hobbles at risk of injury, causing them to struggle, cry and yell once they were in the restraints. METO also placed patients in seclusion rooms for extended time periods, and deprived them of visits from family members. METO has insisted its use of restraints is “essential,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also states that restraints and seclusion were used by METO as a practice of behavior modification, coercion,

discipline, convenience and retaliation. METO staff allegedly restrained some patients hundreds of times, and used these tactics for conduct as benign as touching a pizza box, not staying within eyesight of staff, or even after patients were calmly eating a snack or watching television.

“This lawsuit is about human dignity and respect for people with developmental disabilities and their families,” said Shamus O’Meara, a partner wth the law firm of Johnson & Condon, P.A. O’Meara represents the three families, the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We categorically reject and renounce the abusive, cruel, and discriminatory conduct against these vulnerable citizens at our state’s treatment facility,” O’Meara said.

Brinker/Allen family picture. Thomas standing far right, back
Brinker/Allen family picture. Thomas standing far right, back

On July 31 it was announced that the Brinker/Allen and Jacobs families are joining the lawsuit as their sons Thomas and Jason were allegedly abuse while at METO. The amended complaint describes how Jason Jacobs was restrained hundreds of times with metal handcuffs and leg shackles during his confinement at METO. Jason’s arm was also broken while in metal handcuffs, and METO staff refused to provide Jason medical attention for his arm despite Jason repeatedly telling them his arm hurt and that he wanted to see a doctor. METO also used handcuffs on Jason the day after his arm was placed in an air cast, and refused to allow Jason to take pain medication prescribed by his dentist after a root canal.

Jason was also subjected to abusive seclusion by METO staff, which placed him in restraints and secluded him in a room after refusing to allow Jason to see his mother who had traveled to METO for a pre-arranged visit with him. Jason’s mother, Beth Jacobs, said “METO should be shut down and its staff punished for what they did to Jason and other young people there. They broke my son’s arm and abused him for three years, using handcuffs, leg irons and anything else they could think of, lying to us the whole time about what they were doing.” Thomas Brinker/Allen was also restrained with metal handcuffs and secluded. His parent, James Brinker, said, “Thomas was sent to METO for throwing paint at school.

Once he got there he was abused and shackled like an animal. It’s unbelievable that people who call themselves professionals are allowed to treat people so cruelly, particularly those who are most vulnerable.” “With (the July 31) filing more families now join this action against the unbelievable abuse of people with developmental disabilities and their families at a state operated facility. We categorically reject and renounce the abusive, cruel, and discriminatory conduct against these vulnerable citizens,” said O’Meara.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights is aware of the lawsuit but a spokesperson said that state officials could not comment on pending litigation. As of Access Press deadline no response had been filed by the state. No dates for further action by the court have been set.

METO has long been a topic of scrutiny for the disability community. Its practices have been closely monitored by the

Minnesota Disability Law Center, parents and family members of residents, and a number of disability rights and advocacy organizations.

Lorie Jensen, the mother of Bradley Jensen, the original plaintiff in the lawsuit, commented on the practices METO

forced on her son, saying, “No human being should ever go through what Brad went through. It was demeaning and humiliating and hurtful. Other means are available to correct the behavior. There is no excuse for the actions. All human beings are entitled to dignity and respect.”

Jim Jensen, Bradley’s father, said, “It’s cruel and brutal what they did. It’s a crime what they did to Brad and the other patients.” Bradley Jensen lived at the facility in 2006-2007.

The lawsuit seeks damages for violations of the federal civil and constitutional rightsof people with developmental

disabilities abused at METO, and asks the court to enter an injunction against METO to prohibit its restraint and seclusion practices, and declare as unconstitutional the Department of Human Services’ position that restraint is permitted against people with developmental disabilities.

METO has already been investigated by the state’s Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, which found a practice of abuse at the facility. Among its findings released last fall, the ombudsman reported that documents in individual records revealed that people were being routinely restrained in a prone face-down position and placed in metal handcuffs and leg hobbles. In at least one case, a client that the metal handcuffs and leg hobbles were secured together behind the person, further immobilizing the arms and legs, reported it to the ombudsman staff. Some individuals were restrained with a waist belt restraint that cuffed their hands to their waist. An individual with an unsteady gait was routinely placed in this type of restraint, putting that person at risk of injury if they should fall. Others were being restrained on a restraint board with straps across their limbs and trunk.

METO policies stated that a person was not to be restrained for more than 50 minutes But that practice was apparently not followed. Ombudsman office staff found numerous examples of documented incidents where after 50 minutes in a restraint, staff would continue the restraint but document it on a different restraint use form, sometimes with no indication that it was a continuation of the previous restraint. Documentation also revealed that in most cases where restraints were used the person was calm and cooperative about going into the restraint but began to struggle, cry and yell once they were restraints. In some cases, clients appeared conditioned to “assume the position” for application of restraints where they would lie on the floor and put their hands behind their back without resistance.

The ombudsman also found METO failed to attempt any alternatives to avoid using restraints; the length of time some patients were restrained exceed even METO’s own guidelines; and the agencies that had protective obligations for METO patients or responsibility to serve as checks and balances over the actions of the program failed to protect the patients or turned a blind eye to the problem.

The ombudsman’s office report from September 2008 noted that the practices were stopped in spring 2008. They were brought to light by families with members at METO and by a Minnesota Department of Health investigation in February 2008. A number of improvements and changes in practices were implemented at METO after the allegations became public.