Earlier this year, management at one of New Mexico’s key mental health facilities set a laudable goal: to reduce the frequency with which employees use physical restraints on the center’s violent, mentally ill teenage boys.
Now, though, several employees are raising serious concerns about how Albuquerque’s Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center is achieving that goal, alleging “improper, if not unlawful acts.”
For years, the state-run treatment center has offered a unique opportunity for troubled teenage boys with violent tendencies to turn their lives around. Yet since the facility set its new goals, employees have stepped forward, and outside agencies have come in to monitor a situation that critics say is rapidly deteriorating.
In late August, nearly half of Sequoyah’s 122 employees signed a letter to Administrator Anita Westbrook detailing a distressed workplace and demands for better conditions. The letter describes patients getting into fights with increasing frequency—normally a rare occurrence at Sequoyah—and even details one patient’s attempted suicide.
“There were substantial bruises on his neck caused by his attempt to strangle himself,” the letter reads. “He stated the reason he wanted to die was because he feels terrible since his medicine changed…his pleas for help continue to be ignored by the doctors responsible for his care.”
The letter also alleges that Sequoyah, which is run by the New Mexico Department of Health, has released violent teens to the public before they’re ready—a potential threat not only to the teenagers being released, but also to the general public. It also claims staffers have improperly used drugs to pacify teens in order to avoid using physical restraints.
The same week the letter went out, the state Children, Youth and Families Department’s Licensing and Certification Authority conducted a report on Sequoyah. It identified several deficiencies and prescribed corrective action. A few weeks ago, the nonprofit Disability Rights New Mexico also began looking into the situation.
“We’ve got a couple of broad concerns,” DRNM Legal Director Nancy Koenigsberg tells SFR. “The biggest ones are whether or not their restraint practices fall under the federal or state requirements [and whether] kids are being discharged properly and safely.”
DRNM is attempting to finish the report by Thanksgiving.
But DOH spokesman Kenny Vigil disputes such claims.
“We strongly deny that we are discharging people ‘too early,’” Vigil writes in an email to SFR, adding that the use of physical restraints and “seclusions” at Sequoyah dropped 67 percent over the summer—proof, he suggests, that the changes are working.
Yet Sequoyah employees, who asked to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation (at least one employee involved in drafting the letter is in the process of being dismissed, according to Communications Workers of America Local 7076 President Donald Alire) argue that the improvements look good only on the surface.
“On paper, yes, it looks like they’re decreasing the number of seclusions and restraints,” one employee tells SFR. “But that’s not the case.”
The letter alleges that the drop in emergency restraints is due mainly to the improper discharge of three of Sequoyah’s most violent teens. It also alleges that intramuscular injections used on Sequoyah residents aren’t being properly recorded as chemical restraints.
In July and August, “the facility discharged three residents, two of whom turned 18 and were considered adults, with long lengths of stay: 30 months, 19 months and 26 months,” Vigil writes.
He adds that, when residents reach the maximum benefit of treatment—a point at which they can safely be treated in a setting like foster care or outpatient services—“it is imperative we discharge according to plan as soon as possible.”
Yet one of the directives from CYFD bars Sequoyah from discharging its clients, except during medical emergencies, “until further notice.” CYFD also identified “medication errors” and ordered an audit of every patient’s medication records.
On Sept. 14, Sequoyah drafted a work plan that addresses many of CYFD’s corrective actions. Vigil writes that staff has since been added to “aggressively monitor the use of seclusion and restraint and any potential allegation of abuse and neglect.”
Sequoyah management did meet with union officials about the letter—to, as Vigil writes, “partner with them in resolving any outstanding issues.” Yet Alire says nothing came out of the meeting and that neither information from CYFD nor any external reports on the situation were provided to them.
Still, he’s hopeful that the ongoing external investigations will force a change.
“The reason for the petition is that people wanted to see change,” Alire says. “I can’t see it not happening because we have agencies overlooking the operations. I don’t know if that will keep everybody happy, but at least there’s a direction now that [it’s] going.”
Recently, Sequoyah held an appreciation day as “a joint effort to show unity,” Vigil writes.
On NMDOHCrisis.com, a website run by employees to detail the dysfunction of their agency, an anonymous commenter wrote: “Today is ‘Staff Appreciation Day’ at Sequoyah. I would feel more appreciated if Anita Westbrook had responded to our formal letter of concern. It’s been two months now.”
Read the employees' letter to Anita Westbrook and CYFD's report below: