Sonoma Developmental Center patient abuse records disappeared

When a U.S. District Court jury awarded Petaluma physician Van Peña $1.34 million two weeks ago in a civil rights suit against management staff at the Sonoma Developmental Center, the verdict rekindled 13-year-old memories of abuse allegations and cover-up charges that have never been resolved.

The unanimous jury award from a case first filed in 2000 found that Peña had been placed on administrative leave, and was then fired five months later, in retaliation for his efforts to expose examples of abuse to SDC patients, as well as the administration’s efforts to cover up that abuse.

Evidence of that retaliation was denied by the presiding judge in the first trial, which resulted in a verdict against Peña and for SDC. But an appeals court ruled that Peña’s whistle-blowing efforts should have been allowed into evidence, along with testimony from then-SDC police chief Edward Contreras who had firsthand knowledge of the retaliation campaign against Peña.

Contreras shared that knowledge with the Index-Tribune in 2001, and again during Peña’s second jury trial. This week, he reiterated some of his testimony, including the disappearance of more than 100 patient records documenting abuse from a storage room at SDC and two conversations between SDC administrators during which then clinical director Patty Rees allegedly told Executive Director Tim Meeker, “We have to fire this guy (Peña), he’s trouble.”

A week later, said Contreras, Rees called him to her office and asked, “How’s the investigation going, have you found some dirt on this guy?”

Contreras said he didn’t know what she was talking about and later complained to Meeker about Rees’ demands. Contreras said Meeker then told him, “Just do an investigation and see what’s out there.”

When Contreras completed a background check on Peña he found nothing but superlative testimony about the doctor.

He gave the report to Meeker who immediately began to read it and then exclaimed, “S--t!” according to Contreras, “it’s a great report.”

But background checks weren’t always so precise, Contreras said, even though they were required for every employee by state law. On one occasion, Contreras said, he learned that the clinical director had hired “something like a dozen new people without even being fingerprinted.” When he asked Meeker about the hiring, Contreras said he was told SDC officials had heard of an impending state audit and didn’t want to be caught understaffed.

“They were gambling with people’s lives and safety,” Contreras said. “If they (new hires) don’t go through complete background checks, you don’t know what you’re getting.”

A proliferation of abuse cases was one problem, Contreras said. But that was compounded by the incompetence of state investigators. Abuse cases, said Contreras, were invariably turned over to state investigators from the Department of Developmental Services, not handled by SDC police staff (as erroneously reported in the Nov. 26 edition of the Index-Tribune). But those investigators, Contreras added, were generally incompetent, with no professional police training. Many, he said, were social workers, some came from the state Department of Parks and Recreation. One state investigator, assigned to work with Contreras, broke down in tears and confessed she couldn’t handle an alleged rape case because she’d never investigated a sexual assault and had no police training.

Contreras, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy, said of the repeated roadblocks set in his way by SDC staff, “I was trying to act like a real cop and they were trying to prevent that.”

At one point when he thought the level of cases needing investigation would require more staff, he sent one of his officers to look for more space in the buildings scattered across the sprawling campus. The officer returned to report he had found a room full of legal file boxes stuffed with what looked like hundreds of patient file folders detailing cases of abuse.

Contreras said he reported the find to Meeker who said he would take care of it. Within a day or so, two investigators from Sacramento showed up, unannounced, and without making contact with Contreras, took all the files away.

Contreras said when he asked about the files a little later he was told, “It’s taken care of.” He never heard another word about them.

Peña’s eventual firing was based on the false charge that he imposed a “do not resuscitate” order on a 92-year-old patient with failed kidneys, despite the fact that the patient’s sister had ordered that no extraordinary measures be taken to extend her life, and that the patient herself was not competent to make such a statement.

Contreras left voluntarily shortly afterward (he was not fired, as the Nov. 26 Index-Tribune account reported), following months of what he described as vindictive harassment and micromanagement, and after winning a $950,000 EEOC ruling that his civil rights had been violated.

On Dec. 13, the last meeting of a Developmental Center Task Force will be held, prior to the preparation of a report recommending the future disposition of the state’s four remaining, large developmental centers.

There is strong anticipation in the Sonoma Valley for what the report proposes. The facility employs approximately 1,200 people, but serves a declining population, currently posted as 476.

All those quoted in this article paradoxically agree that the vast majority of staff at SDC are conscientious, caring, hard-working and professional people and that there is a critical, ongoing need for the services the center provides to a population of people among the most vulnerable and defenseless in society.