News Article Details

Two former mental-health workers plead no-contest in Whiting Forensic patient-abuse scandal

Hartford Courant - 11/20/2018

Nov. 20--Two of the 10 former mental-health workers arrested in a patient-abuse scandal at Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown have pleaded no contest to charges of cruelty to a person, a felony, and will be sentenced in January.

Carl Benjamin, 40, of Hamden, entered a no-contest plea to two cruelty counts, and Gregory Giantonio, 44, of Deep River, pleaded to one count.

A plea of nolo contendere operates like a guilty plea and results in a conviction. It means the defendants don't admit guilt, but accept a guilty verdict.

The criminal cases of the other eight defendants are continuing.

Nearly 40 employees of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services were fired over the unprovoked, weeks-long abuse of a physically ailing and profoundly mentally ill patient named William Shehadi. The case unfolded in increments over the last 18 months, each revelation more cringe-worthy than the last, and raised questions about about the leadership abilities of Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, the commissioner of mental health and an appointee of Gov. Danel P. Malloy.

Shehadi's name will soon become familiar to the transition team of Gov.-Elect Ned Lamont. A pair of lawsuits, one state, one federal, brought by the patient's brother, Al Shehadi, a healthcare finance expert from Greenwich, allege torture, as well as extreme indifference by management. The civil cases are still in their early stages. The state attorney general's office is defending the mental-health agency in the cases.

Over a period weeks in early 2017, Shehadi was the target of physical abuse by nurses and direct-care workers, all of it captured on video tape. No one in management viewed the footage, from a camera in Shehadi's room, even though there were monitors at the nurses' station. It took a whistle-blower to get the administration to watch the tape, and the 10 arrests by state police and the mass firing followed.

Whiting, on the grounds of Connecticut Valley Hospital, has new managers and has been placed under more outside scrutiny since the scandal broke. A maximum security facility, most of the patients housed there have been acquitted of crimes by reason of insanity. William Shehadi was admitted in 1995 after being acquitted by reason of mental disease or defect in the death of his elderly father in Greenwich.

Other pleas of guilty or nolo contendere are expected. Five of the defendants applied for a special form of probation that would have resulted the erasure of the criminal charges -- but their application for accelerated rehabilitation was denied by the judge.

In August 2017, before the arrests of the workers, the state Department of Public Health issued a 102-page inspection report on Whiting, saying as many as 40 staff members "were identified in the video log as being abusive or witnessing abuse" and not reporting it, and that another eight workers were talking on their cellphones or had left the immediate area while they were supposed to be constantly observing the patient who was the victim of the abuse.

The DPH report, in addition to detailing patient abuse, noted several fundamental deficiencies, including that nurses and treatment workers were not monitoring surveillance cameras that show all of the activity in the wards; that some workers lacked training in restraint techniques; and that a number of basic policies were not being followed.

The report describes treatment workers and some nurses arbitrarily going into the patient's room, kicking him, throwing food and liquids on him, or pulling the sheet over his head -- and then walking out of the room, only to return later to repeat the actions. The report describes the patient being flipped off his bed onto the floor in the middle of the night and cowering in a darkened corner of the room. At one point "an incontinent diaper" was placed on his head. The video captures staff members taunting and bullying the patient and occasionally striking him, the report states.

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(c)2018 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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