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Va. nonprofit sues for Irvo Otieno hospital records in death probe

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/20/2023 Salvador Rizzo
Irvo Otieno. (Courtesy of Ben Crump Law/AP) Irvo Otieno. (Courtesy of Ben Crump Law/AP)

A nonprofit designated by law in Virginia to advocate for the mentally ill has launched an investigation into the death of Irvo Otieno at the hands of law enforcement officers and other state workers last month — but the inquiry is being stonewalled by the private hospital where police first took him, the nonprofit alleged in a lawsuit filed in federal court this week.

Otieno, a 28-year-old Black man, was in handcuffs and leg restraints when Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and workers at Virginia’s Central State Hospital piled on him for 11 minutes, leading to his death by suffocation on March 6, according to surveillance video and the medical examiner. His death was ruled a homicide, and seven deputies and three hospital workers are facing second-degree murder charges. Otieno’s family has said he desperately needed mental health treatment and instead was brutalized by law enforcement.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in federal court in Richmond by the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, which is designated under state law to “protect and advocate for the rights of persons with mental, cognitive, sensory, physical, or other disabilities” and said it was investigating the events leading up to Otieno’s death.

The suit targeted HCA Health Services of Virginia, the company that operates Parham Doctors’ Hospital. That is where Otieno was initially taken for mental health treatment on March 3, although he was then moved to jail and ultimately to Central State.

The suit alleges that the company has denied or ignored requests for video, incident reports, medication logs and medical notes from Otieno’s stay that might shed light on how he went from mental health patient to homicide victim.

Police said they were responding to a report of a burglary in the Richmond suburbs when they first encountered Otieno on March 3. Officers placed him on an emergency mental health hold and took him to Parham for an evaluation and help, authorities have said. His mother, Caroline Ouko, said that her son was in a state of mental distress and that she tried to get medication to him after police took him in, but that she was not properly directed on how to do so.

Otieno was charged with three felony counts of assault on a police officer and other offenses while he was at Parham. Police said Otieno became “assaultive” at the hospital, so they transferred him to the Henrico County jail. Sheriff’s deputies took him from there to Central State Hospital.

The Protection and Advocacy for Individuals With Mental Illness Act and other laws passed by Congress give specially designated organizations including the disAbility Law Center the authority to investigate incidents of abuse and neglect in the mental health system, and to seek legal or administrative remedies if a health-care provider is not complying with the law.

Provisions in those federal laws require mental health providers to furnish “all records” of a patient for investigations of abuse and neglect, said Colleen Miller, the executive director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia.

“The federal law gives us access to records, to individuals, to policies, to any place where somebody with a disability is getting service,” Miller said. “We actually don’t often encounter a facility that refuses to comply. In our experience here in Virginia, it is unusual.”

The disAbility Law Center alleges in the lawsuit that it has been requesting Parham’s records for nearly a month, contacting HCA Health Services in two letters, a phone call and an email beginning March 24. This month, according to the lawsuit: “A representative … indicated that our initial request was denied due to lack of an authorization.”

“To date, the Defendant has failed to produce the requested records and has not provided a written statement of the reasons for their delay or denial,” the lawsuit alleges. “The Defendant’s refusal prevents the dLCV from carrying out its protection and advocacy functions for individuals with disabilities, and wrongfully burdens the exercise of its authority to access records.”

Miller said her organization emailed HCA Health Services a draft of the lawsuit before filing it, hoping to avoid litigation. HCA Health Services of Virginia is a subsidiary of HCA Healthcare, a publicly traded company headquartered in Nashville that runs 182 hospitals.

“This hospital has a national presence,” Miller said. “We actually expected that once we shared the draft of our complaint with the hospital, that they would comply.”

Apprised of the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for HCA Health Services of Virginia did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. The company has three weeks to file a response with the court. An attorney for Otieno’s family declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks records only from Parham Doctors’ Hospital, Miller said, but she added that her organization is conducting “a comprehensive investigation” of Otieno’s death and the events leading up to it. Attorneys for the sheriff’s deputies and hospital workers have generally denied that their clients are culpable in the death.

“In Virginia, we do not adequately fund mental health services,” Miller said. “We do not adequately fund them until someone is in a crisis. Somebody who needs assistance prior to being in crisis — Virginia just looks the other way.”


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