What Happened in the Beginning?
I first saw the story on one of the local media aggregators or in an RSS feed on one of the more popular blogs in Greensboro.
There was the story by Fox 8’s Carter Coyle, with the glaring headline “Alleged child abuse at Omega Treatment Center in Greens boro, conditions inhumane.”
What I read was nothing short of shocking. Staff members using chemical injections of powerful anti-psychotic medication on children. Improper use of physical restraints. Housing children on unlicensed wings of the facility, which one health inspector described as unfit for a dog.
All of this taking place in a facility not properly under the direction of a medical doctor.
The next day I called Raleigh to the beleaguered Department of Health and Human Services. The same agency that was under the gun that last week in March for lagging in its processing of food stamp applications.
I wasn’t sure how far I would get. I had heard the agency was insular, with Sec. Aldona Wos constantly scrutinized in the press for the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid, or the much discussed salary of two former political operatives from the campaign of Gov. Pat McCrory.
But a nice woman answered the phone and she transferred me right to a man who said he happened to have the documents I wanted right there at his fingertips.
He sent me the files, two suspension letters, a notice of termination and the mother of all public records, a 176-page investigator’s report that took me inside the facility at 4501 Old Battleground Rd.
Thus began a dual descent into depravity.
On the one hand was the awful conditions endured by the six children admitted to the facility during the last two months of 2013. All 176-pages were compelling, nightmarish and, yes, inhumane.
But the question I kept coming back to was how did this place secure permission to open and receive clients as part of the state’s sanctioned psychiatric treatment system?
And that’s where the trail went stone cold.
The same press officer at DHHS who so readily sent me the documents from the end of the saga refused repeated inquiries into the genesis of the tale. I tried two or three different methods of attack, but each was rebuffed with a polite “that information is not available at this time” or “no one is available for interview and we would refer you back to the documents sent.”
I called across North Carolina to the local entities that sent the children to Omega Treatment. Of the four contacted, only one returned a call. She wouldn’t go beyond “we no longer have a contract with that facility.”
Having a live one on the phone, I tried to gain insight into the structure of the referral system, the process for licensure, anything to flesh out the investigator’s report and give readers a deeper understanding of how this could occur.
Nothing. By the end of the week I had more questions than answers.
With an assist, I was able to receive a call from one of the parents whose child had been at the facility.
Elena Johnson called me from Rocky Mount to talk about her 9-year-old’s experience at Omega Treatment Center. They adopted the child at 10-months from a troubled parent. Johnson said they knew the child would be different, but in the last year and a half things have taken a dark turn.
The child was hospitalized at Brynn Marr Hospital in Jacksonville. It was staff at that facility that recommended Omega Treatment Center to Johnson and her husband.
“There are not a lot of facilities that will take a 9-year-old,” Johnson said. “There are just not enough places to take kids of that age.”
Staff at Omega Treatment Center told Johnson that they could not see the child for a month, but that they could call and ask questions. They went to visit in mid- February and that’s when concerns began to mount.
Johnson noticed the child had a black eye. Staff told her the child had fallen and “hit his head.” The child wouldn’t look at her, Johnson said, only at the staff member, who also was hesitant to look her in the eye.
A few days later the child’s mental health coordinator from Eastpointe called and said he had been moved because the state had shut the facility down. The coordinator cited “structural problems” – which Johnson took to mean with the building.
SYKES: Omega Treatment Center
The investigator’s report states that her child was housed on Wing A of Omega Treatment, one of two wings not licensed for occupancy. Only the C wing had passed local and state inspections and Omega Treatment’s CEO Barsheem Chapman had been ordered not to allow patients into those other areas.
The report quotes Chapman as saying “I have no excuse for using it (Hall A) when it was not licensed.”
A few days after her child was moved, Johnson received a call from Guilford County DSS asking her if she was aware of the allegations of child abuse at Omega Treatment Center.
“I was shocked that it could happen at a place like this,” Johnson said. “I felt that if your child is being placed in a facility like this that they will get the care they need, not be abused or watch other children be abused. You don’t expect or want that for your child. They have enough problems without having to deal with that.”
Johnson was clear about her feeling as to what should happen next as local authorities investigate the abuse claims at Omega Treatment Center.
“They should be brought up on child abuse charges,” Johnson said. “If they don’t do something, I will see a lawyer.” !