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Lawsuit alleges Wyoming State Hospital ‘operates in walled secrecy’

Aerial view of the Wyoming State Hospital. (Wyoming Department of Health)

February 4, 2022

by Daniel Bendtsen, WyoFile

A lawsuit claims staff at the Wyoming State Hospital are illegally blocking access to an independent advocacy organization, leaving patients vulnerable to abuse and neglect. 

Protection & Advocacy System Inc., a federally funded group with special oversight privileges, alleges the Evanston facility has a history of failing to provide timely access to patients. That problem has severely worsened since September, with Wyoming State Hospital employees now simply ignoring the nonprofit watchdog group’s phone calls, the lawsuit filed Jan. 18 claims.

The lawsuit specifically names two defendants, Wyoming Department of Health interim director Stefan Johansson and WSH Administrator Paul Mullenax, and asks federal courts to “prevent the defendants from restricting full, complete and meaningful access” to P&A’s advocates.

The Wyoming Department of Health oversees the state hospital. 

Federal law gives explicit authority to groups like P&A to investigate cases of abuse and neglect. The Cheyenne-based nonprofit also has the power to pursue legal remedies for protection of individuals with mental illness.

In 2019, P&A executive director Jeanne Thobro told the Associated Press that WSH had systemic failures caused by staffing shortages which “have led to very serious and in some cases life-threatening conditions.”

However, the hospital can’t blame staff shortages on its recent failure to provide access to Wyoming P&A, supervising attorney Andrew Lemke told WyoFile.

“We have questioned the adequacy of staffing levels at the WSH for some time, and the State has continually denied the existence of any issue with adequate staffing,” he wrote in an email. “It would be disingenuous for them to now state that they would appropriately acknowledge our access rights, if only they had enough staff. P&A’s federal access rights are very clear in the law and we look forward to the matter being resolved so that we can fully represent our clients and advocate for their protection and rights. The State is required to obey federal law. The Complaint details the State’s long history of breaking federal access law. They always offer excuses, when what is required is compliance.”

Wyoming Guardian Corporation, which also has oversight of some WSH patients, has not recently experienced the type of access challenges that P&A alleges, its executive director Emily Smith told WyoFile.

Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, P&A advocates have experienced increasing difficulty contacting WSH patients by phone, according to the lawsuit. Hospital officials met with P&A in September and proposed “unduly dilatory and complex steps” to be able to talk to patients, according to the lawsuit. The claim lists dozens of instances between October and December in which P&A advocates were blocked from contacting WSH patients. The lawsuit claims P&A advocates’ phone calls go unanswered, and accuses WSH of using caller ID to screen calls.

Federal statute requires P&A to have “reasonable unaccompanied access” to WSH and its patients, including “the opportunity to meet and communicate privately with individuals regularly, both formally and informally, by telephone, mail and in person.”

P&A’s lawsuit cites recent scandals at WSH — including instances of sexual assault, neglect and death — as examples of the risks faced when the hospital “operates in walled secrecy without immediate oversight.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.