Parents say child was sexually assaulted in psych hospital

Parents say child was sexually assaulted in psych hospital

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to stigma attached to mental illness and sexual assault, this article assigns the pseudonym Marie to a child committed to a psychiatric hospital. Her parents are identified by their first names only. And a caution: This article mentions self-harm, suicide and sexual assault. If you need mental health support, call or text 988 or consult this resources page

By Taylor Knopf

When Dan and Megan reflect on their decision to take their 11-year-old daughter to the emergency room for psychiatric help, they say they wouldn’t do it again.

Their daughter, Marie, had struggled with anxiety and depression for a few years, in part because of a chronic pain condition that causes her to be easily injured. And after a close relative died by suicide in the summer of 2021, her mental health worsened. She started talking about harming herself during therapy sessions. 

By Labor Day, Marie told her psychiatrist that she was thinking about ending her own life. She named specific ways she would do so.

The psychiatrist told Marie’s parents that in order to keep their daughter safe, they should take her to the emergency room so that she could be admitted to a higher level of psychiatric care. So they did.

But her parents say that the system that was supposed to help Marie only hurt her further. 

The 11-year-old from Durham spent a week last September locked inside Brynn Marr Hospital, a privately owned psychiatric facility on the coast of North Carolina, far away from her family with few opportunities to talk over the phone. 

Marie described being in a co-ed unit with kids several years older than her. She says she witnessed fights break out, followed by blaring alarms and “lockdowns” in their rooms. She also says she was harassed and called vulgar names by other patients. 

Then on the day before she was released, Marie alleges she was sexually assaulted by an older patient.

“Our worst fears came true,” Dan said.

Not the first incident

After her hospital stay, Marie was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the child’s medical records, which North Carolina Health News reviewed with her parents’ permission. 

Marie now needs advanced warning of loud noises, like fire alarms at school. For months after her hospitalization, she struggled to fall asleep due to recurring nightmares of being sexually assaulted. 

Reports of sexual assaults at Brynn Marr are not rare. Local police records show that Jacksonville police received 117 calls with reports of sexual assault or rape at the hospital over the last three and a half years. Police records show an uptick in sexual assault reports after the pandemic began. 

Brynn Marr Hospital CEO Cynthia Waun said the hospital “complies with all state and local requirements for contacting law enforcement if an allegation of abuse is made by a patient or a family member. It is the facility’s legal obligation to do so in order for an investigation to occur.”

“It is the role of law enforcement to assist with the investigation to determine its validity. These calls are made in order to ensure that patient safety is maintained,” she wrote in an email response to NC Health News.

Marie and her parents take their dogs on a walk through their neighborhood in Durham. Marie says her dogs are therapeutic for her. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Marie and her family said they are sharing their story because they don’t want anyone to go through similar trauma. Families need to be warned, they said, that North Carolina courts, psychiatric hospitals and state regulators don’t always shield vulnerable kids from harm. 

And when they are hurt by the mental health system, they and their families often have little recourse. 

“In our pain and our suffering, we’re trying to help other people avoid it,” Dan said.

Dan is an attorney and Megan is a research psychologist. Despite their knowledge and connections, they struggled to navigate the mental health crisis system for their child. 

For one, early on they had no idea many complaints were filed against Brynn Marr Hospital and its parent company. 

Under involuntary commitment 

Two sheriff’s deputies drove Marie three hours from the emergency department at Duke University Hospital to Brynn Marr Hospital in Jacksonville. 

Because she was under a court ordered involuntary commitment, she was transported from Durham to Onslow County by law enforcement officers. Her parents were not allowed to ride in the vehicle with her and were asked to not directly follow the officers.

Involuntary commitment is a legal process that is supposed to be a last resort when a person is determined to be an immediate danger to themselves or others. Involuntary commitment petitions have increased at least 97% — from 53,779 to 106,175 — in North Carolina over the last decade as hospital emergency departments regularly use the legal tool to handle the droves of patients in need of psychiatric care, as NC Health News previously reported. 

An involuntary commitment allows hospital staff to make decisions for patients and provides secure transportation between hospitals. Some North Carolina physicians have said that commitment paperwork is necessary to secure beds at certain facilities.

Committed patients temporarily lose the right to make their own decisions while treated for psychiatric problems or substance use. The process usurps the rights of a parent or guardian to make health decisions for a child too — a reality that can surprise parents, including Dan and Megan. 

They had read negative reviews about Brynn Marr online and didn’t want their daughter sent there. But because space in North Carolina’s psychiatric hospitals is limited and in high demand — especially during the pandemic — patients are often sent to the first available bed. 

When officers dropped Marie at Brynn Marr, she was alone. When her father arrived with clothes and books — only some of which she was allowed to keep with her — Dan said he was told that family couldn’t visit her due to COVID restrictions. 

But inside patients were not allowed to wear masks to protect themselves against the virus because of the ear loop strings, Marie said. That was problematic for Marie who struggles from a weakened immune system due to several health conditions.

Dan said he left the hospital shaken and in tears. 

Inside, Marie said she was taken for a strip search by a male hospital worker who looked for and documented marks on her body, which she said made her incredibly uncomfortable. 

Larger problems loom

Brynn Marr Hospital is one of hundreds of health facilities owned by a large for-profit company called Universal Health Services, which has faced scrutiny. Because the hospitals receive taxpayer funded payments from Medicare and Medicaid, state and federal officials regulate them.

Following multiple reports of abuse and neglect, the chairs of two U.S. Senate committees on health and finance sent stern letters to the leaders of four companies that operate youth mental health treatment facilities, including Universal Health Services.

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