HELENA — A top official at a state facility that caters to people with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems has stepped down following a letter by an advocacy group that contends the facility has a pattern of abuse, neglect and mismanagement.
Montana Developmental Center Superintendent Kathy Zeeck on Friday asked to be reassigned following the letter by Helena-based Disability Rights Montana.
Report had no impact on decision
"We would have taken these actions regardless of Disability Rights Montana's letter," Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, told Lee Newspapers State Bureau. "We're not doing this because they sent us the letter. We've been working on this, with their input, for a very long time."
Besides Zeeck, Disability Rights Montana named two other officials. But Sorrell said they remain at the center.
Group says no effort has been undertaken to improve things
"In the past 10 years of reported abuse and mismanagement, there has been little or no discernible action taken to correct or improve the conditions in the facility," wrote Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of the advocacy group, in the letter.
The state-run center is home to about 60 severely mentally disabled people and has a staff of about 260 who provide 24-hour care for clients committed through a court proceeding.
Sorrell noted that the center is receiving more patients with multiple disabilities and occasionally criminal records, requiring more extensive treatment and therapy.
Staffer was charged with sexual abuse
The letter from the advocacy group comes in the wake of charges filed last summer against a former Montana Developmental Center staffer who police say sexually assaulted a female patient. The former staffer, Allen Whetstone, has pleaded not guilty.
The letter also follows a report this month by the state Board of Visitors that said the center staff described "an atmosphere of fear" following the alleged assault.
In that report, staffers said they feared "retribution by MDC leadership for expressing opinions about dysfunction they observe." They also said, according to the report, that "there is a palpable climate and fatigue and cynicism."
Franks-Ongoy said the advocacy group felt drastic action was needed after years of working with the state to improve the center failed to yield results.
Slowness of response was "unconscionable"
"I think there is the desire to make things better, but the know-how to make things better is lagging," she said. "We have people call us at least twice a week with allegations of abuse and neglect. We go down and find there is a lot of truth to those allegations. The slowness of the department to respond to those sorts of concerns is unconscionable."
Sorrell said Bob Runkel, head of the state Developmental Services Division, will take over as superintendent at the center while the state searches for a new superintendent.