District attorney on documented abuse at Greene Valley: ‘There’s a problem that needs to be fixed’

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GREENE COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – A district attorney is opening two criminal investigations after a Community Watchdog investigation into abuse, neglect and exploitation at Greene Valley Developmental Center in Greene County.

After five months of investigation, we found many cases of substantiated abuse and neglect that were never reported to police. In addition, we discovered even after one of the rare times Greene Valley staff did call police, a local police chief failed to investigate.

After we raised questions about the lack of police involvement and lack of criminal charges at the state’s last institution for people with intellectual disabilities, Third Judicial District Attorney General Dan Armstrong asked the Greene County Sheriff’s Office to open two criminal investigations.

“There’s a problem that needs to be fixed and I will do what I can to fix it,” Armstrong said.

251 documented cases since 2002

Internal investigations dating back to 2009 and completed by Department of Intellectual and Development Disabilities investigators revealed employees asleep, on drugs and drunk on the job, workers giving out the wrong medications, stealing, forgetting about patients and even abusing some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

According to DIDD, internal investigators substantiated 251 documented cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation at Greene Valley since 2002.

Of the 93 documented cases since 2009, our investigation found most cases started and ended inside Greene Valley, like the 2013 case where an employee failed to secure a patient. The man died after he returned from the hospital, according to the summary.

“That was a very horrible situation and we wanted to make sure that that would never happen again,” DIDD Communications Director Cara Kumari said.

According to Kumari, all bathing equipment was reviewed following the fall and all were found to be in good working order.

The state also instituted a bathing supervisor to oversee all bathing activities, bathing support plans and more bathing training, Kumari said.

DIDD prides itself on its nationally-recognized Protection from Harm program. According to Kumari, it requires corrective action in every case and terminations or resignations in the worst cases.

“We would love for there to be zero instances everywhere at Greene Valley and the community, but one of the things we understand is that when you’re working with people incidents are probably going to happen,” she said. “You can either ignore them or you can do something about them and that is one of the things that we’ve been very, very, very stringent about.”

However, after those internal investigations the consequences only went so far; some argue not far enough.

20 employees were terminated or resigned, most never interviewed by police

According to data we reviewed, 20 employees at Greene Valley lost their jobs in the last six years, but we found out most of the time, despite DIDD’s commitment on paper to work with local law enforcement, those workers never talked to police and actions that some might call criminal never received even a quick glance by law enforcement.

Reports revealed the following cases:

  • an employee slapped a woman on her head while giving medications and forced medications into her mouth
  • an employee pulled the hair of a person during floor time exercises and shook her head while holding her hair once
  • a case where an employee slapped a resident on the head while getting that person dressed
  • an unidentified employee pushed a resident into a chair and said she hated her
  • an unidentified employee wouldn’t let a resident get out of a chair and kept pushing that person back down into the chair.

“These are all cases where law enforcement was never contacted and I think people are going to say, “‘Why didn’t DIDD call the police?'” we asked.

“When we do suspect criminal activity we do contact local law enforcement,” Kumari said.

Of 12 substantiated abuse cases since 2009, nine of them physical abuse, DIDD only reached out to law enforcement twice.

“I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t file a police report if someone is physically abused after an internal investigation,” we said.

“When it comes to physical abuse, like I’ve mentioned, when we have things happen we do notify police,” Kumari said.

Resident slapped, other shoved, dragged and slapped; police chief forgot to investigate latter

While the Tusculum Police Department, an agency made up of just two full-time officers, responded to both cases, the cases never resulted in criminal charges.

After an employee reportedly slapped a resident in the face with a shoe in 2014, leaving “slight redness and edema to her right cheek,” police opened an investigation. The employee resigned, but was never charged with a crime.

Then there’s another case from late 2014, involving the reported shoving, dragging and slapping of a woman, which reportedly left a mark.

According to DIDD’s investigative summary, someone reported an employee “shoved the person supported against the wall and then dragged her by her feet to the toilet and smacked her on the buttocks to get the person supported to sit on the toilet.”

Even more disturbing than the vivid details of the report is the fact that the police chief said he forgot to investigate the heartbreaking allegations.

“That’s on me. That one’s on me,” Tusculum Police Chief Danny Greene said. “That’s all my fault.”

“A woman was shoved against the wall, dragged by her feet down the hall, slapped on the rear end, a woman with intellectual disabilities and you forgot to investigate it?” we asked.

“With what you just described, I don’t ever remember having a conversation to that extent, so maybe it got started but wasn’t explained that way,” Greene said.

A department log shows the chief responded to the abuse call at Greene Valley and started a report, but never followed up.

“I don’t remember the case,” he said. “It just went through the cracks.”

“Have you ever had a case like this?” we asked.

“No. That’s what bothers me,” he replied. “That’s part of our job is to watch after those people that can’t take care of themselves…I did fail, absolutely.”

“If the people over there, that poor victim could even understand you, what would you say to her?”

“I would definitely apologize to her,” Greene said. “I’d apologize to her family.”

DA opens criminal investigations, calls for changes

DA Armstrong said not only does the lack of investigation in that case bother him, so does the fact that he can’t find proof of a single case of abuse that ever made it to his office.

“I’d like to have known about all of those,” he said.

“Were you disappointed no one let you know about them?” we asked.

“I am disappointed in the fact that cases that seemed pretty clear that at least an investigation of a criminal nature needed to take place were not pursued,” Armstrong replied.

He said he feels the same way for the neglect case where the man died. Our findings prompted his office to review a stack of recent Greene Valley cases and open two criminal investigations. He said those cases are the ones originally referred to the Tusculum Police Department in 2014.

“I think there could be charges,” Armstrong said. “I just have to wait and see what the investigation tells us.”

“In your mind, don’t you think there’s an injustice here?” we asked.

“To the extent that the appropriate people did not look at these things in a contemporaneous time, yes,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to be treated with respect and when people are not, especially when people are vulnerable, we want to look into it.”

Chief responds: ‘I think it’s just kind of a breakdown of communication between everybody’

Greene said after we told him about the reported dragging case he returned to Greene Valley to speak with administrators in hopes of finding possible witness statements. He welcomes the two new investigations.

“If they can follow up on it and do that then I am happy that the victims are going to get some justice,” Greene said.

At the least, officials tell us our investigation prompted improved communication between Tusculum police, the district attorney’s office and DIDD.

“Who’s at fault here?” we asked Chief Greene.

“I think it’s just kind of a breakdown of communication between everybody,” he replied.

From now on the DA wants DIDD to call police and his office every time there’s a substantiated case of neglect and abuse at Greene Valley. He said that doesn’t mean any of them will be criminal, but he just wants trained law enforcement officers to make that decision, not internal investigators.

“I will make that known to the appropriate people,” Armstrong said.

DIDD responds, willing to honor DA’s request 

According to DIDD, it is more than willing to honor that request.

“We have received no communication from his office about this request,” Kumari said. “We suggest if he has concerns, he bring them up with us so we can work with him as well as local law enforcement. The department would be more than happy to refer all cases that local police and the DA want a referral to be made on. It is the department’s number one priority to keep people safe. While many other law enforcement agencies around the state have not wanted to be called on every substantiated case, especially when there was no harm or injury to the person supported, we are happy to do so if it is what local law enforcement and the District Attorney prefer.”

According to Kumari, in the past, police in parts of the state have “scolded” the agencies for calling law enforcement in “minor” cases.

“DIDD’s investigators in both Middle and East have been scolded in the past by some law enforcement entities for calling the police too often on cases considered ‘minor’ that they did not have the resources to investigate,” Kumari said. “Since we value our relationships with law enforcement and really want them to take us seriously when we do have serious cases of criminal activity, this may have influenced some of the notifications since there was no injury present in (seven of the nine abuse) cases.”

State closing Greene Valley

Families find a sad irony in all of this. Every person who once called Greene Valley home will eventually move away to group homes. The move is forced upon them, because the state will now close the last of its intellectual centers; a move forced on the state because of a civil suit settlement to end a 20-year-old lawsuit alleging abuse at state-run institutions.

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