S.C. Department of Mental Health employees allege discrimination (copy) (copy)

The South Carolina Department of Mental Health has refused to talk about disciplinary actions against employees whose actions caused an inpatient to suffocate in January.

It’s awful enough to learn that a 35-year-old patient at the S.C. Department of Mental Health suffocated when hospital employees pinned him face down on the floor and piled on top of him.

What makes this tragedy even worse is the fact that state officials are hiding behind patient-privacy laws to shield their employees and themselves from any accountability for the senseless death of William Avant, who had been an inpatient at the agency for more than a decade.

We wouldn’t even know about this latest case of a South Carolinian dying in state custody if not for the work of The (Columbia) State newspaper’s Avery Wilks, who discovered it months after the fact.

Mr. Wilks reports that the patient, who suffered from anxiety, depression and impulsivity, kicked a glass wall at the Bryan Psychiatric Facility in Columbia several times until hospital employees arrived and began talking to him; when he walked past them toward a medicine room, at least seven people jumped on Mr. Avant and held him down until he died.

Several employees were suspended, the entire hospital staff was retrained, and the department revised its policy to specifically prohibit placing patients in a chest-down position or lying on their backs. DHEC cited the agency for failing to provide safe and appropriate care to Mr. Avant, and the commission that accredits most U.S. hospitals is investigating.

We’re glad that Mental Health has doubled down on training and changed its policies. But the agency has refused to say how many employees were suspended, and for how long, and whether there was any additional punishment. The Richland County coroner ruled the death a homicide, but the solicitor’s office declined to bring charges, and SLED has refused to release its investigation. Perhaps most galling is the fact that Mental Health has cited patient-confidentiality laws in refusing to discuss disciplinary actions against the employees whose actions caused the patient’s death.

It’s also disturbing that this occurred while a House panel was reviewing this agency, as part of a promising process of legislative oversight of state agencies. In nine meetings of the Legislative Oversight Committee’s Health Care and Regulatory Subcommittee since the death, it never came up. It was only after the newspaper’s report that the panel discussed the matter, raising troubling questions about the effectiveness of this process, which the House needs to take a hard look at.

Anyone who knew about the death had an obligation to bring it up. If no one knew about the death, that raises serious questions for Gov. Henry McMaster to address about whether interim Mental Health Director Mark Binkley should remain on the job. A legislative panel reviewing a state agency that holds people against their will should not have to specifically ask the question: “So, has anyone died in your care in the past few days?”

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In the short term, 5th Circuit Solicitor Bryon Gipson needs to explain why his office decided not to prosecute. And the Mental Health Department needs to tell us specifically how it punished employees who were involved, and why, and if some were not punished at all, why they weren’t.

Then, when the Legislature reconvenes in January, it needs to pass a law to require all government agencies to notify the public, immediately, when someone dies in their custody or at their hands.

The Corrections and Juvenile Justice departments and local police departments recognize that they are acting on our behalf when they detain people, and that we have not only the right but the obligation to know when things go wrong. But the Mental Health Department apparently needs that spelled out — and it wouldn’t hurt to spell it out for everyone. We shouldn’t have to rely on the right people hearing about such things and then asking the right questions and being persistent.