Report details how children's mental health center 'lost total control' during patient riots

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Patients breaking furniture and using the pieces as weapons. Staff huddled in a corner, afraid for their lives.

A newly released state report shows how ten child residents of Strategic Behavioral Center escaped New Year's Day, leading to the loss of new patient admissions and a $20,000 fine.

Investigators used staff interviews and center video footage they say they cannot release to the media to gather details of the incident.

The report states patients used wooden boards broken off chairs and tables to attack the staff. One staff member was punched, another was thrown "forward onto his feet," and others spat on. One staff member had their walkie-talkie destroyed by residents in the chaos.

"We were all afraid," one staff member told an investigator. "We lost total control."

The residents also fought each other - two residents even fighting over a piece of wall trim. Residents vandalized the center by throwing trash cans, tearing up paper, kicking doors, breaking a thermostat, and trying to rip out electrical sockets. Several reportedly barricaded themselves in a room and then escaped out a window. Each, the center says, returned about two hours later.

Interviews by investigators reveal that workers were afraid, and short staffed, saying during the New Year's Day incident, several were "huddled in the corner."

But that short staffing is not the only thing investigators say led to the chaos. The center was accepting patients with histories of aggressive behavior, center escapes, pending legal charges, and gang activity. There was no plan for what to do if a riot broke out.  Doors were left unlocked. And, the former CEO told staff not to call police.

After the New Year's Day riot, another incident was reported on January 5. Several patients, wearing bandanas and multiple layers of clothes, tried to escape again, according to the state report. One child reportedly wielded a wooden board with nails in it. Others were using broken DVD's to harm themselves. The report details patients charging and kicking doors, one kicking a staff member.

One worker told investigators this was the same group as the New Year's Day incident, performing a "gang-like effort to have a new Kingpin... it's not safe for kids, staff, or the general community."

Eleven police officers and 3 EMS personnel responded to the center, handcuffing six patients and arresting three.

On January 10, the state report details another incident in which a patient reportedly ripped out a mirror and toilet seat from one of the rooms, using a broken chair as a weapon, and trying to punch staff.

In the report, dated January 17, a staffer told investigators the center was not any safer since January 1 – saying nothing had changed.

The center now tells WBTV the state has approved its improvement plan, and it is busy putting it into practice. Revisions for the center in the released state report include no longer admitting patients with aggressive behavior, escapes, legal charges, substance abuse, or gang activity. The center is required to remove furniture that could be broken down and used as weapons. Hospital staff has been newly trained to call the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in emergency patient situations. Patients are no longer allowed to have more than three changes of clothes in their room at a time.

The center reportedly has until March 17 before the state makes a final decision on whether to cut off Medicaid payments for good.

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