Jackson Memorial Sued for Shackling Mentally Ill Kids

Lawyers working for Jackson Memorial Hospital have their hands full. The mammoth, publicly-funded facility has been sued over 160 times in the past five years. But few complaints are as disturbing as the one filed yesterday.

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

Shackles are locked cloth restraints, much like the metal cuffs 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-- this was a daily occurrence , she says. Burton is suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It felt like a third world country," says Burton, who 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."

(Read Jackson Spokesperson's response after the jump.)

Adds her lawyer Matthew Dietz: "It's bad enough being a mentally ill adolescent...this adds further humiliation."

Jackson Health System Spokesperson Lorraine Nelson declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit Thursday. She added Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics & Public Trust dismissed a whistleblower complaint filed by Burton in 2008. Nelson released this statement: "Findings speak for themselves."

According to court documents, Burton began working on March 24, 2008. Within three weeks, she discovered charts and physician orders that showed no "policy or procedures" were in place for the 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.

In the lawsuit, Burton seeks to be rehired. She adds: "I just want this to stop."

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill