Ten months after a 7-year-old died from being restrained at a Rice Lake clinic, the case has inspired a campaign to enact stiffer laws and raise awareness about the risks of restraints.
March 11, 2007
By Kevin Harter
Ten months after 7-year-old Angellika "Angie" Arndt died, those responsible will be sentenced Monday in a Wisconsin court. But few who knew Angie, or came to know her plight after her death, feel she will ever get justice.
"Her case is extremely disturbing," said Isabelle Zehnder, president of the Washington state-based Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse. "And it never should have happened."
Angie died May 26, the day after the brown-eyed, 56-pound girl was held down at Northwest Counseling Centers' Rice Lake facility until she was blue and listless and had lost all body functions, according to court documents.
After her death, the Rice Lake clinic was cited by the state, had its license suspended and ultimately was shut down. The girl, who had attended the clinic's day treatment center five days a week for a month for behavioral problems, had been restrained on at least nine occasions, according to a state investigative report.
Staff member Bradley A. Ridout, 29, of Rice Lake, was charged with negligent abuse of a patient causing bodily harm. He pleaded "no contest" to the misdemeanor and faces up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine at sentencing.
The Frederic, Wis.-based corporation that owned and operated the center and still operates 11 others also pleaded no contest to one felony count of negligent abuse of a resident. The maximum punishment is a $100,000 fine.
"The punishment doesn't fit the crime," said Rick Pelishek, the Rice Lake-based regional director of Disability Rights Wisconsin. "Usually a felony results in jail time, but you can't put a corporation in jail."
While sentencing will not bring justice, he said, changing the system would help.
Angie, who was born in Milwaukee, became a ward of the state after her parents relinquished their rights. She had been in and out of foster care before Donna and Daniel Pavlik took her in to their Ladysmith home in early 2005.
The couple said they never restrained her and believed they were making progress with the girl. According to a state report, Angie had been diagnosed with a reactive attachment disorder, a mood disorder and an attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder.
The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled her death a homicide caused by "complications of chest compression asphyxiation" leading to "cardiopulmonary arrest while restrained by another person."
Those rallying for Angie want three things: maximum sentences for those responsible, greater public awareness of the danger of restraints, and better training and laws.
A letter-writing campaign — led nationally by Zehnder and locally by Pelishek — urged Barron County Circuit Judge Edward Brunner to give the maximum sentences allowable, which advocates said still won't be enough.
"We need to look at the big issues of children's mental health services and use of restraints," Pelishek said. "People around the country are watching to see what Wisconsin does."
"We want to change laws in Wisconsin. Laws are not written well. Statutes do not protect children," Zehnder said. "A misdemeanor? That's disturbing. These people should be in jail."
Wanda K. Mohr, a University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey professor of psychiatric mental health nursing, agreed.
"We need to get people's attention on this. Essentially, they are getting a slap on the wrist," said Mohr, who shows a photo of Angie and tells her story while making keynote addresses on the use of restraints.
While Mohr said she is not an expert on how to amend laws, she said improved education, training and accreditation are needed.
"What happened to Angie is outrageous," Mohr said. "Restraints are not benign."
The state, however, has no plans to make any major changes.
"It doesn't appear a change in state code or law is necessary," said Stephanie Marquis, state Department of Health and Family Services spokeswoman. "This is a tragic situation where a center didn't follow policy and center staff weren't properly trained."
Clinic officials, according to court documents, failed to adequately train staff members on how to restrain patients and consult medical records.
"From the time of her admission to the time of her death, there had been numerous acts and omissions by employees of the facility that had compromised Angie's safety," John Knappmiller, chief investigator for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, said in charging papers.
The state continues to monitor Northwest Counseling and Guidance to ensure that it is following orders, including improving training to prevent conflict from escalating to the point of restraint, which is to be used only when a patient is a danger to him or herself or others.
Lawyers for the company and Ridout could not be reached for comment.
Two clinics in Hudson and New Richmond that have a similar name — Northwest Counseling Services — are not affiliated with the company that ran the Rice Lake center.
Kevin Harter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-950-9080, ext. 2149