Positive Report Could Mean End Of Federal Oversight For Beatrice State Developmental Center

The Beatrice State Developmental Center has been the subject of controversy since federal investigators uncovered hundreds of cases of alleged patient abuse and neglect in 2007. The center has dealt with wrongful death lawsuits over inadequate care, the loss of its Medicaid license, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)
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January 2, 2015 - 6:45am

A new independent report is calling for less federal oversight of the Beatrice State Development Center.  NET News looks at the treatment facility's troubled past and still uncertain future.


Jodi Fenner has been the director of the Beatrice State Developmental Disabilities Center in southeast Nebraska for the past five years. This week, she led me on a tour on the center’s sprawling campus. As we entered the center’s vocational building, I observed classrooms with residents participating in activities designed to improve life skills and encourage active learning. Instructors worked one-on-one with residents in a positive environment.

For any observer, it could be hard to picture the center's tumultuous past.

The Beatrice State Developmental Center has been the subject of controversy since federal investigators uncovered hundreds of cases of alleged patient abuse and neglect in 2007.  The center has dealt with wrongful death lawsuits over inadequate care, the loss of its Medicaid license, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The center that houses and works with developmentally disabled Nebraskans finally regained federal funding in 2012. According to Jodi Fenner, the Director of the Division of Developmental Services with the Department of Health and Human Services, that came after working toward the terms set by a compliance agreement between the Department of Justice, Governor Dave Heineman’s office, and the BSDC back in 2008.

Jodi Fenner has been the director of the Beatrice State Developmental Disabilities Center in southeast Nebraska for the past five years. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services)

“We put together a comprehensive team to put together a compliance plan,” Fenner said. “Very quickly we were able to reorganize the facility, make some changes in community-based services, and build some quality assurance systems and investigative systems to address those needs. We did a lot of work in a very short amount of time.“

Federal oversight has still continued to this day, but to a lesser degree because of noted improvements made to the center’s staff and organization under Fenner’s watch. The latest report from an independent expert with the DOJ has now recommended even less supervision. The report praised the center for rewritten regulations, improved staff training, and a revamping of services for residents- all of which has lead Fenner to believe an end may be near for federal oversight altogether.

“So we’ve been under less scrutiny over the past year, and at this point in time, we don’t believe we need further court involvement to continue with the processes that are in place,” Fenner explained. “It’s important to note that when we fixed the issues with BSDC and community DD services, we didn’t just create interim solutions, we created systemic change.”

 Although the BDSC may have finally found the right path, State Senator Steve Lathrop has said it’s taken too long to get there.

“That should have taken about two years to accomplish and we’re six years down the road and it hasn’t been completed,” Lathrop said.

Lathrop has served as state senator for District 12 since 2006. He’s chaired the state’s legislative Developmental Disabilities Special Investigation Committee since 2008.  The committee was designed as additional oversight of BSDC’s compliance, and to hold the center’s administration to task in improving its services.

“The individuals that call BSDC home deserve to have a place where they are free from abuse, where they are getting habilitation- which is to say they are being improved in their circumstance so they can be as independent as their circumstances will permit. That really is the goal,” Lathrop said.

Steve Lathrop has served as state senator for District 12 since 2006. He’s chaired the state’s legislative Developmental Disabilities Special Investigation Committee since 2008. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska State Legislature)

There have been speed bumps along the way. In 2011, several workers were charged with abusing residents. Sixteen center employees were fired or suspended following an investigation into the alleged abuses. Most entered pleas to reduced charges. Lathrop said things like that keep memories of the BSDC’s troubled history alive, especially for family members whose relatives are currently under the center’s care.

That’s been a sentiment shared by the advocacy group Disability Rights Nebraska.

“We are cautiously optimistic that they’re improving, but they’re certainly not a perfect facility,” said Bryan Craig, the DRN’s staff attorney.

“We receive weekly incident reports from BSDC and some of those incident reports involve allegations of abuse or neglect, or involve an incident that at least raises a question in our mind as to whether there is or might be some form of abuse or neglect,” Craig said.

Craig added the DRN plans to continue actively monitoring operations at BSDC regardless of the DOJ’s decision.

Fenner said she expects to know the DOJ’s ruling within the next few months. In the meantime, she’s remained optimistic about BSDC’s future.  And she hasn’t been alone. Despite acting as probably the center’s harshest critic, Senator Lathrop said he gives credit where credit is due for how far the center’s come.

“I think in a big picture way that Jodie Fenner’s done a good job of bringing the Beatrice State Developmental Center back to where it should be, or on the course back to where it should be,” Lathrop said.

While Fenner has acknowledged there are challenges ahead, she said one of her team’s biggest goals has already been met.

“BDSC is just a different place than it was many, many years ago,” Fenner said. “It is very much like a home environment. We’re proud of being able to accomplish that. It’s one thing to meet their medical and clinical needs and do habilitation to meet federal standards, but to actually give people homes is something to be proud of.”

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