Update: In October, we previewed a lawsuit to be filed against the State of Colorado over reports of shocking abuse at the Pueblo Regional Center — claims that included strip searches and genital manipulation of mentally disabled residents.
Now, the suit has been filed (it's also shared here), and the information it includes could hardly be more disturbing.
Yet Mari Newman, who represents the eighteen plaintiffs in the case (they're identified by their initials), says officials have thus far been unwilling to take responsibility for what happened, prompting her to take the matter to court.
The following excerpt from the suit neatly summarizes the incidents that inspired the complaint:
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.
According to Myszak’s reports to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (“CDPHE”), the strip searches were motivated by vague, stale, and anecdotal suspicions that a few PRC residents who resided in one of the several group homes may have been abused months earlier.
By late March 2015, there was no time-sensitive or emergent need to forcibly strip search anyone at Pueblo Regional Center — much less the dozens of residents there who resided in ten separate group homes.
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.
There's little debate over whether these actions actually happened, as evidenced by multiple reports included in our original report. Newman, corresponding via e-mail, suggests that State of Colorado reps could have prevented the lawsuit from being filed had they worked with her to compensate the plaintiffs.
"We tried, over and over, to work with the state to try to get these issues resolved without the need for litigation," Newman writes. "When the legal violations are clear, as they are here, the wrongdoer should accept responsibility, change its conduct and provide a remedy to those that it harmed. But the state has refused to do any of these things. We were shocked that the state continued to deny accountability, even after three different independent bodies — including another department within the state government — concluded that the CDHS performed the strip searches with total disregard for individual rights, including privacy, dignity and respect, and violated both law and policy."
With which agencies did Newman communicate?
"We have spoken multiple times with the lawyers from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, who were representing the state in an effort to resolve the case without the need to file a lawsuit," she maintains. "The state’s refusal to acknowledge their wrongdoing was evident in every conversation. Instead of calling these non-consensual strip searches — which included searching plaintiffs’ naked genitals, buttocks and breasts — what they really were, the state has referred to the strip searches using terms like 'body audits' and 'skin checks.' The state has even gone so far as to suggest that because the victims are people with mental disabilities, they were not damaged by these humiliating and illegal searches. It is really appalling."
Newman notes that the plaintiffs and their families "are struggling" — but they're also prepared to carry the case to its conclusion.
"They know that a lawsuit can be a long and painful process," she acknowledges, "but they are committed to making sure that nothing like this happens to them, or anyone else, again. Our state must recognize the rights of people with disabilities and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve."