Strip Searches, Genital Manipulation: Suit Accuses State of Abusing Mental Patients

Update: In October, we previewed a lawsuit to be filed against the State of Colorado over reports of shocking abuse at the Pueblo Regional Center — claims that included strip searches and genital manipulation of mentally disabled residents. See our previous coverage below.

Now, the suit has been filed (it's also shared here), and the information it includes could hardly be more disturbing.

Yet Mari Newman, who represents the eighteen plaintiffs in the case (they're identified by their initials), says officials have thus far been unwilling to take responsibility for what happened, prompting her to take the matter to court.

The following excerpt from the suit neatly summarizes the incidents that inspired the complaint:
On or about March 25, 2015, Division Director for Regional Center Operations Defendant Tracy Myszak directed nearly a dozen of her subordinate Defendants at CDHS [Colorado Department of Human Services] to storm into the Pueblo Regional Center without notice and conduct warrantless, nonconsensual strip searches of most or all of the residents, including hands-on genital contact in many cases.

According to Myszak’s reports to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (“CDPHE”), the strip searches were motivated by vague, stale, and anecdotal suspicions that a few PRC residents who resided in one of the several group homes may have been abused months earlier.

By late March 2015, there was no time-sensitive or emergent need to forcibly strip search anyone at Pueblo Regional Center — much less the dozens of residents there who resided in ten separate group homes.

Even if the residents had been given the opportunity to refuse or consent to these illegal searches — which they were not — most of the residents were legally incompetent to consent, and Defendant CDHS and its Defendant agents never sought or received consent from their legal guardians.

These compulsory, unlawful strip searches and the associated nonconsensual genital contact foreseeably caused profound distress to the victims who were strip searched, many of whom have histories of physical and sexual abuse, and all of whom are particularly vulnerable to suffering deleterious effects from such a brazen exploitation of power.
There's little debate over whether these actions actually happened, as evidenced by multiple reports included in our original report. Newman, corresponding via e-mail, suggests that State of Colorado reps could have prevented the lawsuit from being filed had they worked with her to compensate the plaintiffs.

"We tried, over and over, to work with the state to try to get these issues resolved without the need for litigation," Newman writes. "When the legal violations are clear, as they are here, the wrongdoer should accept responsibility, change its conduct and provide a remedy to those that it harmed. But the state has refused to do any of these things. We were shocked that the state continued to deny accountability, even after three different independent bodies — including another department within the state government — concluded that the CDHS performed the strip searches with total disregard for individual rights, including privacy, dignity and respect, and violated both law and policy."

With which agencies did Newman communicate?

"We have spoken multiple times with the lawyers from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, who were representing the state in an effort to resolve the case without the need to file a lawsuit," she maintains. "The state’s refusal to acknowledge their wrongdoing was evident in every conversation. Instead of calling these non-consensual strip searches — which included searching plaintiffs’ naked genitals, buttocks and breasts — what they really were, the state has referred to the strip searches using terms like 'body audits' and 'skin checks.' The state has even gone so far as to suggest that because the victims are people with mental disabilities, they were not damaged by these humiliating and illegal searches. It is really appalling."

Newman notes that the plaintiffs and their families "are struggling" — but they're also prepared to carry the case to its conclusion. 

"They know that a lawsuit can be a long and painful process," she acknowledges, "but they are committed to making sure that nothing like this happens to them, or anyone else, again. Our state must recognize the rights of people with disabilities and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve."

Here's the lawsuit, followed by our earlier report.

Pueblo Regional Center Residents v. John Hickenlooper, et. al.

Original post, 5:52 a.m. October 12: 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.

"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."

Following 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.

"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."

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.

Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services: Pueblo Regional Facility Report

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment: Pueblo Regional Facility Report

Disability Law Center: Pueblo Regional Facility Report

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts