Physical abuse, neglect, unsanitary living conditions, improper hygiene, poor nutrition, substandard medical care, lack of security and improper hiring and staff supervision. These are just a few of the complaints some children at the National Deaf Academy (NDA), doing business as NDA Behavioral Health System and NDA Behavioral Health, a residential psychiatric treatment facility for deaf, hard of hearing and autistic children and adults in Mount Dora, Florida, allege.
Investigating abuse and neglect claims
As children’s rights advocates, our team is investigating these claims of abuse and neglect; we have already seen enough to convince us to file law suits against the facility and its parent company, Universal Health Services, Inc. (UHS). Then they will have to produce documents and answer under oath about the conditions children have faced while subject to the companies’ control, and the companies’ employees and former employees will also answer questions during examinations before trial.
NBC News investigates
Complaints about the National Deaf Academy also caught the attention of NBC Nightly News. Correspondent Stephanie Gosk and her team came to Jacksonville to interview some of the families of children we represent who allege they were abused. Read the NBC News investigation and watch the story.
NBC reported the FBI launched an investigation into alleged abuse and neglect at NDA and the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) made 99 separate investigations into alleged abuse and neglect at the facility in the past decade.
Two whistleblowers, both former NDA employees, charge National Deaf Academy’s senior management covered up physical abuse and fired them after they reported incidents of alleged physical abuse to the DCF.
Today, we are filing lawsuits on behalf of three affected families. When my clients, John and Hannah, had an overnight visit with their autistic son, a former NDA resident, he was 22 pounds lighter, afflicted with scabies and told them he was physically abused. A lawsuit I am filing on their behalf alleges their son was physically abused, inappropriately touched, and exposed to pornography.
The mother of Daniel, a deaf boy who was adopted after leaving NDA, alleges he was thrown to the ground by staff as punishment, overly medicated and self-harmed. After moving to another facility, the self-harm ceased and he no longer wore a helmet.
As advocates for deaf and autistic kids, we are the voice of the children who cannot speak. Any type of abuse – especially physical abuse – has an even more cruel, devastating effect that’s compounded by the fact that a child cannot speak or communicate well.
It appears the complaints by the families we’re representing could be just the tip of the iceberg. According to an Orlando Sentinel story, in a 17-month period, from January 2008 to May 2009, Mount Dora police responded to 369 calls at the facility.
Surveys by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration cited the NDA for numerous violations related to everything from abuse and neglect to not reporting abuse to the proper agencies. The agency investigated incidents of a staff member allegedly kicking a resident in the mouth during a time out; another resident who was reportedly forcibly placed in a bedroom closet during periods of aggression and a resident with an elbow injury after alleged mishandling by a staff member.
Other civil lawsuits allege nursing staff refused to provide a wheelchair to a child with an injured leg, forcing her to crawl on the floor and sit in her own urine. Another claims a resident’s leg was amputated above-the-knee after being forcefully thrown to the floor by staff and restrained for misbehaving. There is even a case for wrongful death of a resident due to improper care and outright neglect.
Parent company’s Jacksonville facilities
Problems are not confined to the NDA facility alone, but extend to other facilities owned by Universal Health Services, Inc.
According to its website, the Behavioral Division of Universal Health Services, Inc. operates 195 facilities in 37 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands that include inpatient and outpatient mental health and substance abuse services, specialty programs for autism spectrum disorders, eating disorders, trauma and neuropsychiatry services.
While Universal Health Services, Inc. was repeatedly listed among FORTUNE magazine’s “World’s Most Admired Companies” in recent years, the children and their families that we represent say what happened to them at one of its facilities, the NDA, was less than admirable – that it was deplorable.
Something needs to change. At the very least, the National Deaf Academy needs to be revamped if it is not shut down. Children who cannot talk or have trouble communicating are some of the most vulnerable. They deserve better and need to be protected.
Attorney Bruce Maxwell is a member of Florida’s Children First and raised a special needs daughter.
At Terrell Hogan, we represent the injured as they seek justice. If you suspect a loved one has been mistreated or abused at a residential facility, we invite you to consider having Terrell Hogan represent you. Call 904 722-2228 or (888) 244-5557 for a free consultation.