Caregivers in Parkland Memorial Hospital’s psychiatric emergency room suspected that their new patient had been drugged and raped. She cried, talked nonsensically and asked for a genital exam.
Levie Smith Jr. saw a fellow aide — a man not qualified to do such an exam — take the patient to a bathroom and close the door behind them. Smith alerted a nurse, who walked across the unit and opened the door.
“What the — !” the nurse cried out, his face turning “red as a beet,” Smith said. A few minutes later, the nurse told Smith what he had seen: The patient was bent over, with her pants down around her ankles. The aide, Jermaine Douglas, had his face “a few inches away from her bottom.”
Parkland police investigated the October 2010 incident one year later, their records show. Officially, they concluded that the only person who behaved inappropriately was the patient. The Texas Department of State Health Services also investigated a year later, based on a Dallas Morning News inquiry. “The state cited Parkland for failing to report the alleged sexual abuse,” hospital officials said, although DSHS did not verify patient harm.
Douglas, who remains on duty in the psych ER, denied wrongdoing to police and health care regulators. He declined to be interviewed for this story. His personnel records, which Parkland released in response to a public information request, show no sign that he has ever been disciplined for misconduct with patients.
Contradictions abound in official records on the case, raising questions about what really happened and whether Parkland responded properly. Here’s how events unfolded, according to regulators’ records, police reports and eyewitness accounts:
The nurse who interrupted the bathroom incident promptly called the psych ER manager, Vernell Brown, who was away from the unit at the time. Brown instructed the nurse not to file an electronic patient safety report. Employees are supposed to submit such a report as soon as possible after witnessing potential harm.
Instead, on Brown’s orders, the nurse made a handwritten account of what he had seen: Douglas escorted the patient to the bathroom and disappeared for “several minutes.” When the nurse opened the bathroom door, Douglas ran toward him, “was startled and stuttered, ‘I I was a checking her bruises.’”
A patient safety report was later made in Brown’s name. Dated the day after the incident, it said the patient “exposed herself to male staff. Staff stated while obtaining a urine sample from pt [patient] she pulled down her underwear wanting to show staff a bruise on her buttock.”
The report made no mention of what Smith and the nurse, Robert Meskunas, said they saw. A legally required internal safety investigation did not occur.
Smith, who quit Parkland in late 2011 and filed a federal discrimination complaint, told The News that Douglas had a habit of standing near slightly open bathroom doors while female patients provided urine samples. He said he had warned unit manager Brown about this. But Brown and Douglas were friends, Smith said, and no change in behavior resulted.
Brown now works at a desk job outside the psych ER. He did not respond to interview requests from The News. He told regulators that “Parkland police talked to the patient,” who “denied the incident.”
But none of the officers named in records obtained by The News reported interviewing the patient.
Three Parkland police officers spoke separately over time to Meskunas, the nurse who walked in on the aide and the patient. Only one, Detective Jon David Schoen, created an investigative record.
Another detective, Darlene Griffin, said Meskunas “adamantly denied” seeing anything inappropriate in the bathroom. But Griffin could not remember when their conversation occurred, did not document it at the time and took “no further actions.”
The third officer, Cornelius Torrence, said Meskunas complained about Douglas inappropriately “being inside the restroom” with a patient. “There was more than just one incident he was upset about,” the officer said, according to records. But he viewed this as an “administrative” matter and didn’t investigate further. Like Griffin, he did not remember when the conversation occurred nor document it at the time. None of the officers agreed to be interviewed.
In a recent statement to The News, Parkland claimed its police investigated the case twice, although it released only one investigative record. The statement also repeated the claim that Meskunas had recanted and told police “nothing inappropriate had occurred.”
Smith, after being shown a copy of the Parkland statement, said: “They’re trying to cover it up.” Hospital officials denied any “effort to suppress or overlook” any sex abuse allegations.
Meskunas resigned last month and declined to comment. But he told Schoen that the recantation claim was incorrect, according to an audio recording of their conversation obtained by The News.
During the November 2011 recorded conversation, Meskunas asked the detective why he had not tried to speak with the patient. “Because right now she’s not a victim,” Schoen said. “You don’t want to create a problem where there’s not one.”
Schoen also told Meskunas that he’d learned Douglas had a history of similar misconduct and had “actually been suspended for it before.”
“The police department would love to do something about it,” Schoen said. But “because it was handled administratively the first time, there’s no criminal offense.” The detective did not explain what he meant by that.
When Meskunas said it was “so wrong” for Douglas to avoid charges and keep his job, the detective replied: “I don’t disagree with you a bit.”
Schoen said he and his supervisor “tried to come up with a criminal offense that we could prove, and there’s not one” without an allegation of physical contact. They also lacked proof, he said, that Douglas’ intention was sexual gratification.
“Sexual gratification?” Meskunas fired back. “He had her bent over like a stripper with his face all in her business.”
Parkland’s website says sexual abuse “can be verbal, visual or anything that forces a person into unwanted sexual contact or attention.” According to a brochure distributed by the hospital, it includes failure to respect people’s privacy in bathrooms.
Schoen told the nurse he was “sorry that we couldn’t do something that kind of satisfied you more. I hope you understand the predicament that we’re in as a police department.”
Then the detective offered some parting advice.
“If it happens again,” he said, “you don’t have a duty to go through your chain of command to report a criminal offense. You can go straight to the police department, especially if you can articulate why you believe that it would be covered up if you went through your chain of command.”
Smith told The News that Parkland has “some great officers” who sincerely try to carry out their duties. But “they are puppets.”
“The police are there to protect the hospital,” Smith said. “It’s not about the patients.”
After interrupting the bathroom incident, Meskunas asked fellow nurse Annie Molinaro to interview the patient. Government health regulators questioned Molinaro about this during their October 2011 investigation
She recalled that the patient, when asked “if everything was OK,” said that Douglas had been in the bathroom with her and “I tried to show him.” As they spoke, Molinaro told regulators, the patient began to pull down her pants again in the dayroom — a large space in the middle of the unit where most patients spend time.
Molinaro’s account, as described in the government’s investigative report, gives no more details of what the patient said. When Schoen, the Parkland detective, questioned Molinaro two weeks later, he reported her saying “that the patient denied any inappropriate conduct by the suspect.”
In the tape-recorded conversation with Schoen, Meskunas said Molinaro told him on the day of the incident that the patient spoke of “doing what she was told.” He added that “she was very confused,” and “she was embarrassed.”
Meskunas alleged that Molinaro was trying to protect the reputation of Brown, the psych unit manager, because she was having sex with him.
“You’re not the only person that has said that,” Schoen responded. “You and I both know the relationship between Vernell and Annie, but I can’t prove that that affected her judgment or her statement.”
Molinaro is the only person interviewed by regulators or police who said that the patient tried to pull her pants down in the dayroom. She did not respond to interview requests.
Smith said he did not see this and doubted whether it occurred. If it did happen, he said, then Molinaro violated the patient’s privacy by questioning her in the presence of other patients.
According to the government’s report, Douglas said he told the patient to wait outside the bathroom while he picked up trash inside. She followed him in, began asking questions and insisted on showing him her bruises. The door was partially open. “All of a sudden the patient dropped her pants,” he is quoted as saying.
Douglas told regulators that he did not touch the woman. When they asked if he sexually abused her, he said he was turning away from her when Meskunas walked in. He “did not look at the bruises.”
Two weeks later, when Schoen interviewed Douglas, the story seemed to change. “He stated that at no time was he inside the bathroom with the patient,” according to the Parkland detective’s report.
Smith told The News that account was “a lie.”
“I saw it,” he added. “He went in after her.”
Schoen’s official report on the bathroom incident concluded: “While it does appear that the patient behaved inappropriately, there does not appear to be any evidence that a criminal offense was committed.”
The patient seemed to have been adequately protected, the report said. Yet it added: “A recommendation was made to review the policies and procedures for staff dealing with patients and make appropriate changes to safeguard the patients and prevent unintentional inappropriate activities between staff and patients.”
In its Jan. 22 statement to The News, Parkland said, “education was conducted in the psychiatric ER regarding incident reporting and appropriate procedures in dealing with patients of the opposite sex.”
The Department of State Health Services, which licenses Texas hospitals, produced the regulatory report for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “There was no indication” of sexual abuse found when interviewing Parkland employees and reviewing hospital records, the report concluded.
But it noted that “some of the information received by the surveyor conflicted.” Interviews and records summarized in the report repeatedly point to possible misconduct.
DSHS spokeswoman Carrie Williams declined to comment, saying that investigative details are confidential. Texas law prohibits public release of such reports. The News obtained its copy from federal health officials, who blacked out the names of most Parkland employees and the patient.
Williams did say that Parkland’s failure to contact DSHS, and the resulting delay in investigating, “made it very difficult” for regulators to determine what happened.
Parkland learned new information during the regulatory investigation that led to Douglas’ suspension, the DSHS report says.
The new information isn’t described in the government report or in personnel records that Parkland released to The News. But Smith said he overheard a government investigator, after interviewing him, make a telephone call urging Douglas’ immediate removal from duty.
Parkland records show that Douglas was suspended that day, pending an internal investigation of “allegations of inappropriate behavior with a patient.” The records don’t show why he was put back on duty.
The Parkland detective, during the recorded conversation, said the hospital’s top psychiatric official was “frankly disappointed that she had to put him [Douglas] back on the schedule.”
That executive, Larae Huycke, was new to her management job at the time. Smith said Huycke initially told subordinates she planned to fire Douglas even if he wasn’t criminally charged. But she didn’t.
“Larae told me, ‘Levie, if this situation blows up, it could cause the psych ER to close,’” Smith told The News. He understood Huycke to mean that the unit couldn’t survive a confirmation of sexual misconduct, given what had already happened.
In late 2011, members of Parkland’s governing board revealed that they had considered closing the unit. The News had reported throughout 2011 on widespread problems in Parkland’s psychiatric ER, including the finding by regulators that psych aides had illegally restrained a patient shortly before he died. (Parkland police did not investigate that case.) The regulators went on to identify hospital-wide problems and install safety monitors.
Huycke herself was later accused of using an illegal chokehold on another psych ER patient. Parkland police quickly cleared her. But after a few weeks, the hospital said she would step down and return to full-time nursing work. Huycke hung up when a reporter recently called.
After the bathroom incident, Smith said, he was pressured to distance himself from Meskunas, the nurse who reported it. Fed up, Smith eventually quit and filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In it, Smith said his boss, Brown, had referred to Meskunas as a “white boy” and called another nurse who reported patient safety issues a “white bitch.”
The federal agency dismissed Smith’s complaint without certifying Parkland had complied with the law. The hospital successfully contested Smith’s unemployment compensation claim.
Smith recalled that he had once reminded Brown about Douglas’ habit of lingering near female patients as they urinated. He said Brown responded: “Let him hang himself. If he’s done it once, he’ll do it again.”
PARKLAND STAFF INVOLVED IN PSYCH ER CASE
In October 2010, a nurse reported witnessing the sexual abuse of a psychiatric patient in a Parkland Memorial Hospital bathroom. Regulators and Parkland police who investigated a year later did not substantiate the allegation. Here is a snapshot of events. All job titles are those employees held at the time.
Her identity has not been released, and she was never interviewed by police or health care regulators. Hospital workers suspected she had been drugged and raped before arriving at the psychiatric ER.
Psych ER aide
He escorted the patient to a bathroom, where she pulled her pants down to her ankles. He denies any wrongdoing.
LEVIE SMITH JR.
Psych ER aide
He alerted a nurse that Douglas had gone into the bathroom with the patient.
Psych ER nurse
He opened the bathroom door and reported finding the patient, pants down and bent over, with Douglas’ face near her crotch.
Psych ER unit manager
He received a phone call from Meskunas about the incident and told him not to file a patient-safety report.
Psych ER nurse
At Meskunas’ request, she interviewed the patient shortly after the incident. He said Molinaro told him the patient spoke of “doing what she was told.” But Parkland police said she later claimed the patient “denied any inappropriate conduct” by Douglas. There’s no record that Molinaro made such a claim to government regulators.
Parkland police detective
She said Meskunas “adamantly denied” seeing anything inappropriate in the bathroom. She didn’t document the conversation at the time.
Parkland police corporal
He spoke separately with Meskunas and said the nurse complained about Douglas being inappropriately “inside the restroom” with the patient. He didn’t document the conversation at the time.
JOHN DAVID SCHOEN
Parkland police detective
He conducted the only documented criminal investigation of the incident. He did not speak to the patient but concluded officially that she “behaved inappropriately” and no crime was committed.
Smith said she vowed to fire Douglas even if police filed no charges. Schoen said privately that she was “disappointed that she had to put him back on the schedule.”
SOURCES: U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; Parkland; Dallas Morning News research