State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, is joined by Republican colleagues in the Illinois General Assembly to call for operational changes at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in Anna in response to an investigative series by Lee Enterprises Midwest, Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica. Credit:Andrew Adams/Capitol News Illinois
Repeated investigations of the center have revealed patients who were beaten and humiliated by staff, and staff who lied to cover up their actions.
All 59 Republican members of the Illinois General Assembly are calling for legislative hearings on a state-run mental health center in rural southern Illinois, citing findings of a culture of abuse, cover-ups and poor patient care from a months-long investigative series by Lee Enterprises Midwest, Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica.
Late last week, the members sent a letter to key Democratic committee chairs in the Illinois House and Senate asking them to schedule a bicameral public hearing on the facility.
The districts that include and surround Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center are represented by Republicans, but as the minority party in both chambers, they lack the authority to convene a legislative hearing.
On Thursday morning, several downstate GOP lawmakers reiterated their call to action at a news conference at the Capitol. Rep. Paul Jacobs, R-Pomona, whose district includes Choate, and others stressed that they want to see conditions fixed.
“The residents there can’t suffer. The most profound developmental and mental disabilities in the state can’t suffer. They have to be treated well,” Jacobs said.
In addition to the in-person hearing, the lawmakers requested access to high-ranking Illinois Department of Human Services officials who oversee the facility, including Secretary Grace Hou.
The facility is one of 13 psychiatric hospitals and developmental centers operated by IDHS across the state. Choate is located in the rural community of Anna near the Missouri border about 120 miles southeast of St. Louis. The 270-bed facility serves people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, including people diagnosed with “profound” disabilities and some who are nonverbal.
Since September, the news organizations have detailed startling cases of patient beatings, neglect and poor medical care, as well as coordinated efforts by staff to cover up patient mistreatment. A story published this month disclosed that patients with pica, a disorder in which people feel compelled to swallow inedible objects, had been forced to dig through their own feces to recover the items.
Over a 10-year period ending in 2021, the IDHS Office of the Inspector General fielded more than 1,500 allegations of abuse and neglect at Choate. And the state’s attorney in Union County, where the facility is located, has filed charges against at least 48 people — both patients and employees — since 2015.
Several GOP lawmakers stressed that while they want to see improvement at the facility, they want Choate to remain open. The call for hearings comes after Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker reiterated his position last week on the situation at Choate: Fix it or close it. Some parents of longtime Choate residents have expressed concerns about where their loved ones would go if the facility closes, including state Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, whose brother lives at Choate with more than 230 other residents.
We don’t have facilities to house them up in other parts of the state,” Tracy said. “They have the type of care that is needed by the population that resides there. As I mentioned, many of these have tried group homes, ourselves included. It didn’t work for the specific needs of my brother and several others or many others that resided there.”
Closure would also mean the loss of state jobs in far southern Illinois, an economically depressed area largely represented by Republicans.
Pritzker’s threats of closure didn’t sit well with Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, whose district neighbors Choate, and she called on the governor to take a more active role in finding solutions.