Police served a search warrant Tuesday to get DNA from all male employees at a long-term care facility in Phoenix where a patient who had been in a vegetative state for years gave birth, triggering reviews by state agencies and putting a spotlight on safety concerns for patients who are severely disabled or incapacitated.
Hacienda HealthCare said it welcomed the DNA testing of employees.
“We will continue to cooperate with Phoenix Police and all other investigative agencies to uncover the facts in this deeply disturbing, but unprecedented situation,” the company said in a statement.
Local news website Azfamily.com first reported the woman, who had been in a vegetative state for more than 10 years after a near-drowning, delivered a baby on December 29.
San Carlos Apache officials announced Tuesday night that the 29-year-old woman was an enrolled member of the tribe, whose reservation is in southeastern Arizona about 134 miles (215 kilometres) east of Phoenix.
In a statement, tribal officials said the woman was still in a vegetative state when she gave birth.
The woman’s name was redacted from the tribal statement. It’s also unclear if staff members at the facility were aware of her pregnancy until the birth.
“On behalf of the tribe, I am deeply shocked and horrified at the treatment of one of our members,” tribal chairman Terry Rambler said. “When you have a loved one committed to palliative care, when they are most vulnerable and dependent upon others, you trust their caretakers. Sadly, one of her caretakers was not to be trusted and took advantage of her. It is my hope that justice will be served.”
A lawyer for the woman’s family released a statement Tuesday saying the family was outraged at the “neglect of their daughter” and they asked for privacy.
“The family would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for,” Phoenix attorney John Micheaels said in a statement.
San Carlos Apache Police Chief Alejandro Benally said Phoenix police “will do all they can to find the perpetrator” and his department will assist “in any way possible.”
A spokesman for Hacienda HealthCare said investigators served a search warrant Tuesday to obtain DNA samples from all male staffers.
In a statement, board member Gary Orman said the facility “will accept nothing less than a full accounting of this absolutely horrifying situation.”
“We will do everything in our power to ensure the safety of every single one of our patients and our employees,” Orman said.
Hacienda CEO Bill Timmons stepped down Monday, spokesman David Leibowitz said. The decision was unanimously accepted by the provider’s board of directors.
Gov. Doug Ducey’s office has called the situation “deeply troubling.”
Phoenix police so far have declined comment.
The Hacienda facility serves infants, children and young adults who are “medically fragile” or have developmental disabilities, according to the website. In the wake of the reports, the Arizona Department of Health Services said new safety measures have been implemented. They include increased staff presence during any patient interaction, more monitoring of patient care areas and additional security measures involving visitors.
The state’s online complaint database for care facilities shows multiple complaints about Hacienda de Los Angeles going back to 2013. Most of them involve fire drill and evacuation preparation or Medicaid eligibility. But one complaint from December 2013 outlines an allegation that a staff member made inappropriate sexual comments about four patients two months earlier. Nobody relayed the incidents to an administrator. That employee was later fired.
Martin Solomon, a personal injury attorney in Phoenix whose clients are mostly vulnerable adult victims of abuse and neglect, said a lawyer representing this woman should call for all pertinent medical records, a list of current and ex-employees and any past litigation involving Hacienda. It would be the police who would lead DNA testing to figure out who fathered the baby, Solomon said.
It would be hard for Hacienda to escape any kind of liability in court.
“There’s a lot of information we do not have. But things like this don’t happen without someone either knowing about it or should have known about it,” Solomon said. “Whether it’s an employee or someone from the outside, the facility has an obligation to protect residents.”
Advocates for the disabled say Arizona needs to find a way to monitor allegations of sexual abuse and sexual violence in group settings. Doing background checks isn’t enough, said Erica McFadden, executive director of the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council.
“I think when you’ve had somebody who’s had multiple allegations from different parties, there has to be some way to track that,” McFadden said. “If it’s the same story from different people, then there’s something wrong.”
The council recently formed a task force to look at how to improve training for health care workers when it comes to identifying and reporting sexual abuse.
“We don’t have a systematic way to train people what’s a good touch or a bad touch. We also don’t have required training for providers,” McFadden said. “We really need a lot of work in this area.”
Jon Meyers, executive director of The Arc of Arizona, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, called the allegations “disturbing, to put it mildly.”
“I wasn’t there. I clearly don’t have firsthand knowledge of what happened,” Meyers said. “But I can’t believe someone receiving that level of constant care wasn’t recognized as being pregnant prior to the time she delivered.”