Wauchula, Florida - The Florida Institute of Neurologic Rehabilitation (FINR) is under investigation for numerous complaints over patient abuse and in some cases, their deaths. FINR, which is 50 miles south of Tampa in rural Wauchula, has already lost a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit. Allstate Insurance is now suing FINR for for $7 million.
In an undercover tape obtained by the 10 News Investigators, two burly caretakers are shown elbowing a brain injured patient in the chest up to 30 times. The patient, wearing a helmet and knee pads, is helpless to fight back. Both caretakers have been arrested and are facing criminal charges. This incident is far from the only ugly incident at FINR, which has loved ones and a former patient irate with what they say has gone on at FINR.
"I'm furious. I don't know how this amount of abuse could be overlooked," said Jessica Alopaeus, whose brother was a FINR patient.
"All of those people deserve better and it (FINR) needs to closed," said Heather Hicks. Her father Reginald came to FINR after suffering a brain injury in a car accident. Shortly after his arrival he fell and had to be rushed to the hospital. When Reginald returned to FINR, he was on a feeding tube and was restricted to a liquid diet.
Four days later, a FINR employee took Reginald to the cafeteria, where he was given solid food that he aspirated into his lung and died.
His daughter had just left the facility to drive back to Tampa.
"I got a text and a phone call saying, basically, that he was going to the hospital. So I drove there. When I got there, he was... they were doing CPR on him... and he didn't make," said Heather.
Heather's sister Lisa adds, "And then you get a phone call and are told he's gone. How do you wrap your mind around that, when he had progressed so far? And then he is gone without any legitimate explanation or warning."
"They didn't stop"
Michael Lieux, a former Marine with a massive brain injury, is another patient that didn't make it. Lieux died as staff members were applying what's called a BARR, or "Brief Assisted Required Relaxation" technique. Dr. Jeffery Walden says it is used on patients that are agitated and need to be restrained.
"The procedure itself involves placing the person face-down on a padded mat. They are held in place by trained staff who are certified -- and go through a rectification process annually -- and they are held in place until they calm down," said Dr. Walden. But when we told Walden that patients and family members described the technique as a violent takedown, he acknowledged sometime that is the case when dealing with a patient is out of control. Walden also admitted sometimes people are injured during the takedowns, adding that also includes staff members.
In Lieux's case, four staffers tussled with him because they thought the 250-pound former Marine had taken an extra snack cake out of the kitchen.
The family attorney Howard Kay explains what happened next: "He came out of the shower and he was naked, and they grabbed him and they started throwing his clothes around. He was a Marine and he always kept everything tidy, and that aggravated him, so a struggle ensued. So they took him to the ground, held him there, and he defecated. They didn't stop and he urinated. They didn't stop and then he stopped breathing. They didn't stop and he died."
Kay won a $5 million judgment against FINR, which initially told Lieux's mother Una Marshall that her son died from epilepsy. His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, however she didn't learn the truth until a FINR caseworker told her what really happened.
"It's just hard to believe that something like that happened to your child at a place like that, where they were supposed to be taking care of him." Una says she thought that criminal charges should have been filed, but they never were.
"Living in terror"
FINR charges up to $1,850 a day to take care of patients and can receive as much as a million dollars a year per patient. A 2008 report from the Protection and Advocacy services in the District of Columbia, which sent 21 patients to FINR, found violations of numerous District of Columbia human rights policies, physical restraint without a written doctor's order, patients alleging staff cursing at them, and treating them "like garbage."
Janet Clark went to FINR for a two-week evaluation, but ended up spending more than a year at the facility, saying she couldn't get released.
Janet says she was surprised and appalled at the way she saw how the patients were treated and that "it was worse than a prison." And Janet would know how a prison is run; for a year before she had the accident that caused her brain injury, she worked as a prison guard.
According to Janet, "FINR was much worse than a prison, in the way that people were treated."
Janet also says she was injured during the BARR restraint takedowns. She showed us a picture of a black eye that she said she suffered when she was kicked during one of the takedowns. She claims the takedowns often injured people and the violence these caretakers exhibited were commonplace.
"We were living in terror. All of us were living in terror, 24/7. You never knew what was going to happen to you." Janet begged her husband to convince the court to let her leave, all the while she and other patients were allegedly subjected to vicious attacks. Janet says during other takedowns, her arms and hands were were bruised.
No way out
Program director Bennie Colbert wants people to understand what has happened at FINR isn't the norm. "It would be absolutely ludicrous for anyone to suggest that an effective business model would be to market our program internationally and to bring clients onto this campus and allow them to be mistreated," Colbert said while showing us around the FINR campus. He says the caretakers that have been arrested for mistreatment had done so outside of FINR policy and outside of FINR's value and standards.
But since we started working on this story, Allstate Insurance filed a $7 million lawsuit against FINR, alleging patients have been beaten bruised and abused. The suit also says patients have been warehoused and held captive when they wanted to leave.
Peter Price fit that profile shortly after arriving at FINR. His sister Jessica Alopaeus was his co-guardian. Jessica says,"About a month in, I got the first call [from Peter] saying, 'Jess, they beat me up. Can you get me out of here?' I of course agreed to get him out as soon as I could."
Jessica says her brother was severely injured after being subjected to the BARR takedown technique. "He had a split lip, he had bruises all over his torso, his genitals were bruised and swollen. I regret not getting on a plane that day and taking pictures, but I trusted in the police report." However Jessica adds, "The police did a shoddy job at best. They waited a couple of days to come out and by then, most of the bruises were gone."
Jessica says not only did it appear the small town police department seemed in no hurry to investigate FINR -- one of the largest employers in the community -- but also her co-guardian, a Michigan attorney who gets paid to have several clients in FINR, wouldn't allow her brother to leave. Finally in desperation, Peter came up with an escape plan as he was taken on a field trip to the Walmart in Wauchula. He was supposed to be watched 24/7 by staff, but somehow he was able to buy five fish hooks and 22 AA batteries that he swallowed when he got back to FINR.
Shortly after that, Alopaeus threatened to sue her co-guaridan and the organization decided it was time for Peter Price to leave.
Jessica says of the entire incident, "As a mother and as a guardian, it made me want cry or throw up... a little bit of both."
Scott Berg is another client currently at FINR who says he can't get out of the facility. He told us on the phone, "I just want to go home, my mom's sick. I just want to go home to my mom, because she could die or something. She is not doing very well at all."
Scott called us, because he say was kept away from us during our tour. He says he was able to sneak away and call. FINR is receiving $87,000 a month to care for him and it talks about the therapy it gives to its patients, but don't tell that to Scott Berg.
"Are you getting any therapy?" we asked Scott.
"No sir, no sir."
When we asked what he was doing at FINR, he told us, "I've been trying to figure that out for a year and half now."
We asked program director Bennie Colbert if the people coming out of the woodwork complaining are an anomaly. Colbert told us, "I can't speak to that. I don't know what their motivation may be, but what I know from working in the industry is that FINR is an excellent program that promotes health recovery from brain injury, that promotes a therapeutic program."
Colbert adds, "And all of our systems are designed with that goal in mind."
But don't tell that to Joe Cox, another patient at FINR that Howard Kay represented. Joe's IQ is 68 and he was 17 at the time he was and his family filed a lawsuit, but it never went to court because of a confidential monetary settlement. The lawsuit alleged that Joe was burned , beaten and raped while he was a patient at FINR.
According to Kay,"What we alleged was he was burned by cigarettes -- both by staff and fellow residents -- as they would supposedly play games, seeing who could burn who the longest. That was the burn part of it.
"The beaten part was that Cox was physically beaten for whatever reason, and then Cox claimed he had been raped by FINR staff." However, Kay says," but the case resolved and I can't tell you what happened. But it resolved."
Complaints go back more than a decade
The Florida Department of Children and Families has received more than 500 complaints about FINR and the agency has been aware of problems for more than a decade. A published article dating back to 2001 has a memo from DCF administrator Sue Gray saying, "We have observed an escalating pattern of increased abuse reports and injuries. Most of the concerns is the inadequate and under-trained and unsupervised direct care staff... I would strongly suggest that any of you who have children in this facility need to explore other options for their care."
The Agency for Health Care Administration has had complaints about the facility, but it continues to operate. That frustrates family members like Jessica Alopaeus, as well as Lisa and Heather Hicks.
Heather says, "They have absolutely have been just as neglectful as if they were there, looking at those people in the face. Turning your back is doing the same thing as doing something wrong, in my perspective."
Jessica says, "I think there is a lot of blame to pass around. People have known about this for a long time, even before my brother had his issues. And the fact there are deaths, [and] other issues they can't deny. They've even admitted to some of the abuse. For it to keep going, it's sad."
She adds, "It makes me angry, sad... all different emotions, depending on the day."
While the state is starting to look into problems at FINR -- including a Department of Health ruling that the facility is violating its operating license because it is treating 50 patients who are not brain or spinal cord injured - the facility's owner has an entirely different take.
Joseph Brennick is adamant that the allegations about FINR are coming through an orchestrated campaign from a Tallahassee public relations firm, which represents a mining company that owns the property surrounding FINR. Brennick says his land sits on two billion dollars worth of phosphate and calls the allegations a land grab.
"I believe it is a land grab, and eventually they want to put me out of business and buy the land out of bankruptcy," said Brennick.
Regardless of the phosphate company, there a lot of people who are as adamant in their belief that they or their loved ones were mistreated.
"Maybe some of them, their experiences weren't that enjoyable for them. They've moved on and they've gone to other places," suggested Brennick. When we reminded him that some people had "moved on" because they died, Brennick told us that he can't talk about the people that have died there.
He does acknowledge that there have been hundreds of complaints about FINR, but says part of the problem is the fact the patients are difficult to deal with.
According to Brennick , "A lot of them aren't thinking straight and when they get confused and think something has gone wrong, they can call the health department." According to Brennick, there are telephones everywhere.
But Janet Clark disputes that patients have free access to complain. She says, "Using the telephone was pretty much forbidden. There would be one phone in the house and you had to get permission to make a call."
Janet told us, "I would sneak into another room and I would call our local agency; they had a poster on the wall." However, after Janet called the state to complain and a worker came to investigate, "I was severely punished."
Those upset with FINR say they believe there is another motivation besides the welfare of patients. Heather Hicks believes, "It for the money and I find it disgusting, disgusting."
FINR doesn't deny that its fees are high, and it points to the fact it employs 600 people to provide care for patients and has to maintain its 900-acre facility in what calls "pristine condition."
Bennie Colbert told us, "We feel the pristine, tranquil atmosphere promotes healing."
Critics also say when insurance runs out, patients are forced to leave. While Brennick says FINR often keeps patients after the insurance money elapsed, he also admits that nobody is here forever. "Everybody eventually moves on, because that is the way the cookie crumbles."
Old facility shut down
Joseph Brennick founded FINR after his father's company, called New Medico, was forced to shut down in 1992 following the elder Brennick's arrest and an FBI investigation, as well Congressional hearings that alleged similar abuses.
Janet Clark says, "New Medico had an enormous amount of facilities that did the same kind of care, and New Medico was owned by the Brennicks." She claims New Medico was sued so many times for patient abuse, they had to close and they were sold.
"There was one facility that was being built when New Medico was ordered to close, and they just changed the name."
The newly named facility was FINR.
"And that was the facility where I was put [into]," says Janet. "And it was run no differently than New Medico."
Brennick calls New Medico ancient history and says his company is doing everything it can to protect patients. He also rejects the charges he provides inadequate training for the hourly employees, who are hired to watch the patients 24/7.
According to Brennick, "Even with the best training in the world, you are still hiring people." While Brennick admits there are videos of staff hitting clients, he says, " I know nowhere in our training program does it suggest that a staff should hit a client." Brennick says that's why he has installed an elaborate camera system to monitor those who are supposed to be monitoring the patients.
"The only thing I can do is put in the cameras and catch them when they are doing wrong, and bring it to an end as quickly as possible."
Program director Bennie Colbert points out that after the staffer who recorded the patient abuse on the cell phone notified FINR executives what was captured on tape, the organization wanted to see what its own cameras had captured.
Colbert says, "We conducted our investigation and that investigation included a review of the video tape. We then turned that video tape over to the Department of Children and Families and our own local law enforcement for the purpose of prosecuting those staff who absolutely engaged in egregious acts that are not sanctioned by FINR."
Abuse allegations continue
Days after we visited the facility, the Disability Right Florida filed a lawsuit saying it had reports of more problems, including residents being improperly restrained and another patient abused by staff. When a Disability Rights Florida caseworker tried to investigate further, she was denied access and told to leave the premises.
That violates federal law.
FINR attorney Jay Adams calls it a misunderstanding. "We were led to believe that when they came out, they were allowed to visit the client that they said they were doing an abuse investigation." According to Adams, "After that was over, they asked to tour the campus and see some individuals. It was not clear to us it was part of the investigation."
However, Adams acknowledges that Disability Rights Florida has the right to conduct any investigation it feels is warranted.
Not all unhappy with treatment
Despite the allegations, there are some families who can't say enough good things about the facility.
Christine Edwards says, "It's been great." She is talking about her husband Tommy, who she says has made amazing improvements in the year he has been at FINR after he was hit by a car as he was walking in a parking lot.
"He came here into the medical building on a gurney... couldn't talk, couldn't walk, couldn't swallow. And now he walks, talks, eats. He's even working on doing engineering like he did before.
Barry Bicknell's son is also rehabilitating at the facility. "I am here every day and I have never seen anything that would indicate inappropriate handling of client. I can tell, you my son is loved by his caretakers and the emphasis is on care."
Clearly there are patients and families who are thrilled with the treatment they receive at FINR, but critics say that doesn't make up for the allegations of dissatisfied families and patients, as well as the Washington DC report alleging human rights violations and the Allstate Insurance federal suit alleging a pattern of abuse and violence at FINR.
All Heather Hicks wants is for this never to happen to anyone else's father. But until the state or other official agencies take action, FINR will continue operating; it is now helping many, but has the potential to injure some of the most vulnerable people who desperately need care.