Why Lawsuit Is Coming Over State Mental Facility That Became a House of Horrors

The Pueblo Regional Center, where the strip searches took place. Additional images and more below.
The Pueblo Regional Center, where the strip searches took place. Additional images and more below.

According to attorney Mari Newman, one of her clients in a soon-to-be-filed lawsuit over shocking abuse that took place at the Pueblo Regional Center, a State of Colorado facility that houses mentally disabled patients, "grew up in a very, very troubled family and was very badly abused. And she said what happened reminded her of what her stepfather used to do to her."

Specifically, dozens of residents were subjected to aggressive strip searches, including genital manipulation, as part of an investigation into what was originally termed paranormal activity.

These actions have been castigated in multiple reports from public and private agencies; see examples below. But Newman, whom we last spotlighted in coverage of a John Doe lawsuit against Aspen Valley Hospital that ended with an $800,000 settlement, maintains that "the state attorney general's office has totally denied accountability. The office has said these people suffered no damages and even accused them of lying about it."

Here's how Newman tells the story.

One of the abuse victims — and a Newman client.
One of the abuse victims — and a Newman client.

"The Pueblo Regional Center is part of the Department of Human Services," she explains. "It provides services to people with disabilities — a regional center for adults with developmental disabilities in the Pueblo area that includes a big center for activities and group houses."

In November of 2014, Newman notes, "there was a cause for concern. In one of the several group homes, somebody had scratched words into people's skin, and the staff said they suspected paranormal activity, which is just wacky."

Several months later, in March 2015, the investigation took a turn that Newman characterizes as "horrible. They brought in a team of people from a facility in Westminster, rounded everyone up and strip-searched everyone. They were strip-searching people with disabilities who didn't do anything wrong, but they treated them like criminals."

At first, Newman allows, "they tried to search them all together in the public areas, but some of the employees were like, 'This is outrageous. How can you demean them like this? You have to at least do this privately.' So they ended up doing it more privately. But it was still done by total strangers, and in many cases, these people have terrible histories of abuse, including sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. So the Department of Human Services abused them further rather than addressing the concerns about abuse."

All 62 residents of the facility were strip-searched, Newman points out, "and that included taking off their clothes, including bras and underwear, and personnel manipulating their genitals. They keep calling them 'skin audits.' That's the terminology they use for these searches, and they describe it along the lines of, 'Will you please lift up your sleeve, so I can look at your arm?' But what really happened is, they stripped clothes off if people couldn't take them off themselves — even people who are non-verbal and who were moaning and thrashing to make it clear they didn't want to be stripped. But they did it anyway. The searches included people's anuses and genitals and breasts."

In Newman's view, "these searches were as invasive as it gets. There were absolutely no safeguards in place, no legal consent for the searches, and they were performed in a way that was incredibly humiliating for the residents."

In the wake of this incident, Newman goes on, "three separate, independent reviews were conducted. One was done by a state agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. They did a review and found that the searches violated the residents' rights. Disability Law Colorado also did a report that found a lot of violations. And the most recent one was done by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It's a federal report, and it also determined that there was a violation of the residents' rights. But the state attorney general's office is still acting as if they didn't do anything wrong."

Newman represents seventeen people who underwent the searches.

Attorney Mari Newman.
Attorney Mari Newman.
Courtesy of Mari Newman

"Some of them can speak and some of them can't," she says. "They have various levels of disability. But it's abundantly clear that they were damaged by the state's conduct. I have one client who, after these strip searches, was pulling out her hair. I have clients who have expressed incredible fear and intimidation. They were made to believe they had somehow done something wrong and were in huge trouble — and they were absolutely terrified that state workers were going to come back and strip them again. This is a population that's so incredibly vulnerable, and the fact that the state would subject them to this kind of treatment is almost unthinkable."

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Why hasn't Newman filed a lawsuit over these matters yet?

"We tried to negotiate with the state to see if they would do the right thing," she reveals. "And we entered into a tolling agreement — an agreement that stops the clock on any legal deadlines. We agreed not to take any action as long as the state negotiated in good faith. But the state hasn't negotiated in good faith, and once the tolling agreement expires, I anticipate that we will file the lawsuit."

The tolling agreement expires this week. Continue to read reports by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing (under the auspices of CDPHE) and Disability Law Colorado.



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