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In March 2015, a division director in the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services ordered 60 residents of the Pueblo Regional Center to be strip searched. The residents were developmentally disabled patients of the center, and DHA officials never sought consent from the patients, their families, or legal guardians. According to a lawsuit filed later, the aggressive strip searches included hands-on genital manipulation of the patients, many of whom had histories of physical and sexual abuse.
The state settled those claims this week, agreeing to pay $1 million to the families of the victims, and institute other reforms.
Nonconsensual Strip Searches
DHS officials attempted to justify the searches by claiming there had been incidents of patient abuse, but later admitted to investigators they made no attempt to contact the families or legal guardians of the residents to get consent for the searches. (An investigation by the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office resulted in just one charge against a Pueblo Regional Center staff member.)
Staff also protested the searches without guardian consent but were told the body inspections were mandatory and needed to be done immediately. According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the patients:
On or about March 25, 2015, Division Director for Regional Center Operations Defendant Tracy Myszak directed nearly a dozen of her subordinate Defendants at CDHS [Colorado Department of Human Services] to storm into the Pueblo Regional Center without notice and conduct warrantless, nonconsensual strip searches of most or all of the residents, including hands-on genital contact in many cases ...
Even if the residents had been given the opportunity to refuse or consent to these illegal searches -- which they were not -- most of the residents were legally incompetent to consent, and Defendant CDHS and its Defendant agents never sought or received consent from their legal guardians.
These compulsory, unlawful strip searches and the associated nonconsensual genital contact foreseeably caused profound distress to the victims who were strip searched, many of whom have histories of physical and sexual abuse, and all of whom are particularly vulnerable to suffering deleterious effects from such a brazen exploitation of power.
Along with the monetary compensation to the patients, the settlement calls for the Colorado Department of Human Services to provide new training for staff incident reporting rules, facilitate regular meetings with patient families, and increase pay for staff at the center, among a list of other reforms.
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