Summerville man seeks answers about autistic son's injuries at Willowglen Academy residential facility
Dorchester County Deputy Public Defender John Loy faced a tough decision when his severely autistic son became a grown man, stronger and still in need of 24-hour supervision.
He and his ex-wife, who alternated weeks caring for Matt Loy, realized they should seek outside help. They moved the 20-year-old to Willowglen Academy, a psychiatric residential treatment facility in Williamsburg County, about an hour and a half drive from John Loy's Summerville home.
Within months, mother and father began noticing bruises on their son. They told employees at Willowglen about the markings, since their son cannot communicate for himself.
Yet the problem continued, according to John Loy. Then an April incident landed Matt in the emergency room with broken bones, cuts and bruises from head to toe.
The episode left John Loy with unanswered questions about what happened during his son's six-month stay at Willowglen. The incident remains an open investigation with the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office and the State Law Enforcement Division.
“As an attorney, people think you have the ability to make things happen,” Loy said. “But I wasn't able to protect him.”
Willowglen Academy-South Carolina Executive Director Teresa Vassar released a written statement in response to inquiries from The Post and Courier. She declined to discuss Matt's case, citing patient privacy laws, but cited the safety of staff and patients, or “consumers,” as the top priority at the facility.
Williamsburg County sheriff's deputies arrived at Willowglen shortly after noon April 21 in response to a call of a patient out of control. A deputy took Matt by his arm and placed him in a deputy's cruiser, according to an incident report.
A nurse told the deputy that Matt had a psychotic episode, the report said. The deputy wrote that Willowglen staff asked him to take Matt, but that the deputy told them he could not charge Matt, given his disability.
When staff then asked the deputy to take Matt to the hospital, the deputy wrote, “I asked if they did not have the ability to take care of him there, as they are a facility.”
In Vassar's statement, she said employees undergo rigorous training but that Willowglen “does not use confinement or similar restrictive measures to ensure safety.
“When any consumer becomes a danger to themselves or others, we may seek a higher level of care to get them into a safe environment, until they no longer pose a danger to their immediate environment,” she said.
“We strive to work with our community partners to ensure the safest settings for our consumers within the community and appreciate their planned and unplanned support.”
A nurse told the deputy that Matt kicked her, grabbed her and pulled off her shirt, according to the deputy's report. Two male employees recalled similar attacks, though the deputy noted that the three employees bore no visible injuries.
A girl allegedly kicked by Matt showed the deputy a red spot on her leg, and someone told the deputy that Matt choked a boy, but no one brought out the boy to the deputy.
Matt suffered a broken hand, a black eye, a knot on his forehead, a swollen nose, an injured lip and bruises all over his body, according to the report.
His father said he only learned about the incident seven hours later, and that no one told him about the extent of his son's injuries.
When he arrived at the hospital, he couldn't believe what he saw, Loy said.
The emergency room doctor told the deputy that the bruises seemed consistent with forcible restraint, but that she could not say if the force was necessary, the report said.
Nurses' notes from the hospital depict Matt as calm during his six-day stay, while his family worked with the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs to find Matt a new home.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel confirmed to The Post and Courier that his agency's special-victims unit is investigating allegations of injuries at Willowglen Academy. Williamsburg County sheriff's officials did not return multiple phone calls for comment over a five-day period.
A Freedom of Information Act request with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control revealed no complaints against Willowglen and only one violation — in 2011 inspectors found that the facility lacked window drapes necessary for patient privacy.
Matt Loy's parents noticed problems over time.
In February his mother advised staff that she wished someone had told her about the bruise on her son's upper left hip.
The residential coordinator and program director reviewed videotapes and incident reports, plus Matt's progress notes, and found nothing to show him agitated, no reason for the markings, according to an email sent to Matt's father.
The email explained that Willowglen would bring in residential supervisors, hold a mandatory employee training and conduct weekly “body audits” for residents who cannot communicate on their own.
“Not knowing the nature of any injury sustained by any consumer at any time is unacceptable at Willowglen Academy-South Carolina,” the note said.
John Loy said he asked the same residential services director about bruising he noticed on Matt the next month.
Loy said he received no response, and now he awaits word from the law enforcement investigation into his son's April hospital stay.
“He's my son. I've placed him in here because I'm hoping he's going to be safe here,” Loy said. “It's a situation that needs to be dealt with.”
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/allyson jbird.