Bound and Shackled at Jackson Memorial

Lawyers working for Jackson Memorial Hospital have their hands full. The mammoth, publicly funded facility has been sued more than 160 times in the past five years. Few complaints, however, are as disturbing as the one filed last week.

It came from Lisa Burton, former director of patient care in the mental health unit. Her claim: Staff frequently shackled mentally ill children without giving them psychiatric assessments. Workers did so because they were understaffed, she says. After she protested to management last year, they fired her, according to the lawsuit.

Shackles are locked cloth restraints, much like the metal cuffs prison inmates wear. In most psychiatric units, they are meant to be used only during emergencies and when violent behavior threatens safety. In this case, the lawsuit notes, restraints were used when the young patients "needed to go to court or medical appointments." For adolescent females — who are required to go to the ob-gyn each time they check in — it was a regular occurrence. Burton is suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It felt like a Third-World country," notes Burton, who says she has worked in hospitals for 25 years. "It's my duty to stand up for these kids. They are the most marginalized segment of the population."

Adds her lawyer, Matthew Dietz: "It's bad enough to be treated for mental illness as an adolescent; this adds further humiliation."

Jackson Health System spokesperson Lorraine Nelson declined to comment about the specifics of last week's lawsuit. She added that the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust dismissed a whistleblower complaint filed by Burton in 2008.

According to court documents, Burton began working at the hospital March 24, 2008. Within three weeks, she says, she discovered there was no "policy or procedures" in place for the use of restraints. The problem was widespread and had been happening for years, the lawsuit states. Three weeks later, on April 16, Burton was promoted. She then "complained to her supervisor... regarding the practice." The following week, she was fired.

The lawsuit makes no request for money. Says Burton: "I just want this to stop... And I want my job back."