EDITORIAL: Better oversight of Porterville Development Center a must

FresnoNovember 30, 2013 

Caring for people incapable of caring for themselves is one of the most important responsibilities of government in a civilized society.

It is imperative that the state of California keep a vigilant eye on facilities such as the Porterville Development Center, which is home to 425 men and women with cerebral palsy, mental impairment and other disorders.

But, as tenacious reporting by The Center for Investigative Reporting has revealed, the California Department of Public Health has been woefully lax in its oversight of this facility, which provides 24-hour residential services for clients.

According to witness accounts, a center employee, 6-foot, 3-inch, 400-pound Erik "Big E' Hansen, allegedly stomped a patient unconscious in late 2010. Yet the Department of Health waited more than a year to begin interviewing witnesses about Hansen's participation in the violent event, which left patient Larry Russell hospitalized and in a coma.

Such tardiness is unacceptable.

Furthermore, ample evidence suggests that silence, covering for fellow employees and rule-breaking permeates the Porterville Development Center. Most egregious: The Porterville Police Department didn't receive notice of Russell's life-threatening injuries until 52 hours after Hansen's confrontation and argument with him. And, on the day of the incident, five other employees working in the vicinity of the incident submitted written notes to center officials supporting Hansen or denying they saw anything, according to the CIR story published Thursday by The Bee.

Hansen, whose personnel file includes six allegations of physical abuse against patients, finally had his nurse assistant license revoked by the state in April 2012. In a statement to state investigators, Hansen denied abusing Russell, who has moderate mental retardation and paranoid schizophrenia.

"I have grave concerns about the slow investigations by the developmental center and the culture of silence that appears to exist," Assembly Member Connie Conway, R-Visalia, told CIR reporter Ryan Gabrielson. "The fear of retaliation has led to a web of lies, cover-ups and injustice."

Gov. Jerry Brown must make it clear to Dr. Ron Chapman, his Department of Public Health director, that the Porterville Development Center needs a top-to-bottom evaluation. The governor also must demand that aggressive action be taken against employees endangering clients' health and welfare, and participating in a code of silence.

Remember, little more than a year ago, the state Attorney General's Office filed criminal charges against two former Porterville Developmental Center police officers for allegedly embezzling more than $100,000 in overtime pay. This clearly is a poorly run facility.

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