Texas won't allow psych hospitals to hire psychiatrists with sex abuse histories
January 20, 2012
Following reports by the American-Statesman that state mental health hospitals employ psychiatrists with a documented history of sexual misconduct, the Department of State Health Services has seized ultimate hiring authority of all doctors at its 10 facilities.
Starting this week, the agency's state hospital section director — an Austin-based administrator who oversees all the hospitals — must review and approve psychiatrists before they are hired. The hospital staff would still conduct interviews and select a candidate, but final approval would no longer be in the hands of hospital superintendents.
"It boils down to adding more checks and balances to protect patients," said health services spokeswoman Carrie Williams . "We want to hire the best person for the job, only good people with good records, nothing less. If a potential hire looks risky, we'll keep looking."
The hospital superintendents have also been directed to review the files of all currently employed psychiatrists for "abnormalities, inconsistencies with job applications, actions by Texas or other state medical boards, or confirmations of abuse, neglect or exploitation," according to a Jan. 18 memo written by Mike Maples , assistant commissioner for mental health and substance abuse services. Any irregularities must be reported to the section director by Feb. 1, Maples wrote.
The policy change comes after a December story in the Statesman showing the state knowingly hired three hospital psychiatrists with a documented history of sexual misconduct. Two of them still work at Rusk State Hospital.
The third — Dr. Alejandro Munoz — was fired from Terrell State Hospital this month after officials discovered he had been terminated from a community mental health center in 1998 and had later signed a legal settlement that banned him from working at state-funded mental health facilities.
Mental health advocates approve of the state's new hiring policy.
"I think it's helpful," said Beth Mitchell with Disability Rights Texas , a federally funded group that acts as an advocate for people with disabilities. "It will bring to light individuals they might not have known of."
Since December, the Department of State Health Services has made several policy changes that officials say will help protect patients from harm, such as moving staffers to other units if they are accused of abuse. The hospital is also spending more than $100,000 to retrofit 336 doors at psychiatric hospitals with windows so patients can be visible to passers-by.
The change began after former Austin State Hospital psychiatrist Charles Fischer was accused late last year of sexually abusing teenage patients in his care.
In October, an investigation by the Department of Family and Protective Services reported that the doctor had sexually abused two teen boys in the past decade. Fischer was subsequently fired from the hospital, and the Texas Medical Board temporarily suspended his license.
Fischer, who has not been criminally charged, has denied the accusations through his attorney. He is fighting his termination from the hospital and is appealing the medical board's action on his license.
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