Treatment of mentally ill Juneau teen questioned

Posted: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Advocates for the mentally ill say a disturbed teenager was mistreated when he was handcuffed and escorted by two security guards on a flight from Juneau to Anchorage last year.

The treatment amounted to neglect and may have left the boy with more hostility toward authority, the Disability Law Center said in a report.

The report last month from the private advocacy and investigatory agency "reflects serious concerns about the lack of a dignified and therapeutic response to an individual in crisis," said Melissa Stone, director of the state Division of Behavior Health.

"We see this as an opportunity to reshape and improve our policies to ensure the safe and respectful transportation of patients to our safe hospital," Stone said.

The teen was moved in February 2009 from Bartlett Regional Hospital to Alaska Psychiatric Institute, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Bartlett says its staff provided good care for the teen. He was safely transported to API, which was what his mother wanted, hospital attorney Michael Lessmeier said in a written response. Nurses, an emergency room doctor and a psychiatrist were all involved. The hospital objected to the handcuffs used by the private security company Securitas USA.

The teen's mother sought help because of behavior that included fights at school, throwing furniture at home, brandishing a knife, public masturbation and smearing faces on walls.

Things didn't go as planned, the Disability Law Center found. Instead of a smooth checkup before the flight, the situation was handled like a mental health crisis.

The teen was held overnight, was repeatedly asked invasive questions by strangers, and had to listen to his mother describe his behavior over and over, the report said.

Though his mother had planned to be the one to fly with him, he ended up with two Securitas escorts who put him in handcuffs for the Alaska Airlines flight.

The law center says the experience "placed the adolescent at risk for emotional injury and/or trauma and as such constituted neglect."

The mother and son aren't identified in the report and didn't want to be interviewed directly. The mother relayed through the Disability Law Center that the child is still angry and may have "more hostility toward authority," said law center attorney Meg Allison Zaletel.

State officials say the case appears to be isolated, but they don't track how often mental patients are handcuffed during flights to treatment hospitals.

A Securitas representative told the law center that they all are handcuffed, so the guards cannot be accused of "handcuffing based on race, religion, gender, etc."

That shouldn't be happening, Stacy Toner, operations manager for the behavioral health division, told the Anchorage Daily News.

The state has agreements with Securitas USA and a Juneau Native corporation, Goldbelt Inc., to transport patients from outlying areas to Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks to be committed for treatment. The escorts are supposed to be trained in a system that relies on the least restrictive means necessary.

State health officials want to evaluate whether that's being done.

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