A primary responsibility of state government is to protect those who otherwise cannot protect or take care of themselves. Sadly, in too many cases, the State of Illinois is failing these most vulnerable citizens and their families.
In Northwest Illinois, we are far removed from the atrocities that have been uncovered at the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in the southern Illinois community of Anna. But with the state-run Mabley Developmental Center located nearby in Dixon, you better believe I’m paying attention. It is important to note that I have not been made aware of any recent care delivery issues at the Mabley Center. In fact, I have heard positive stories about the care received there.
The horrific instances of abuse that have been revealed at Choate are jaw-dropping. Widespread reports of abuse include the beating of patients, severe neglect, and acts of humiliation against those seeking care there. A culture of intimidation and retaliation against whistleblowers, the obstruction of investigations, and lying to the police have also recently been brought to light. Recent investigative reports by ProPublica, Capitol News Illinois, and Lee Enterprises revealed that the mistreatment of patients at Choate dates back three decades and that more than 40 criminal investigations had taken place over the last decade alone. Since 2015, it was reported that criminal felony charges have been filed against 49 people with ties to Choate.
The reports are sickening and warrant immediate action.
Shortly after the news reports were published, every Republican member of the Senate and House- all 59 of us- signed a letter that urged the immediate convening of a public, joint, bicameral hearing of the five Senate and House Committees that oversee policy discussions related to health and human services, behavioral and mental health, and the funding of those services and facilities. The letter was sent to the Democratic committee chairpersons of those committees, and as of this writing, no public hearings have been scheduled.
The week after the letter was sent, a large group of Senate and House Republicans held a press conference and outlined some recommended immediate steps that should be put in place at Choate, including the installation of cameras in common areas, heightened staff training, the hiring of additional, qualified staff, enhanced tracking of allegations of mistreatment, increased administrative and security inspections, improved accountability measures for staff, and the immediate replacement the Director and Assistant Director. Legislators stressed that simply closing the facility was not a good option, because legislators felt we need more, not less mental health and developmental disability inpatient services throughout the State of Illinois.
On March 8; however, Governor Pritzker abruptly announced he was “repurposing” the facility, and that the 270 residential patients would be eventually moved to other state facilities or group homes. The decisions were made with no public hearings, and no collaboration with legislators who hoped to create a plan that would improve the functionality of the center and allow those staying there to remain near their loved ones.
It is a reasonable expectation that those placed in a state-run center for mental health or developmental disability care are treated with respect and dignity, and that the employees at these facilities are well-trained, compassionate professionals. But when we learn that mistreatment at one of our state’s facilities dates back three full decades and across several administrations, there is clearly a larger problem that must be addressed. That issue is budget priorities and where the controlling Party chooses to allocate state dollars.
Each year as Illinois legislators craft the annual budget, facilities that provide care to our most vulnerable should be near the front of the line for budgetary dollars. That means before the Majority Party channels money to pork projects in their home districts, before they allocate funds toward taxpayer-funded abortions, and before they expand programs for illegal immigrants, they have an obligation to ensure the most vulnerable among us have the resources they need to ensure they are receiving quality care in an environment where their safety and dignity are prioritized.