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Grand jury: Psych clinic erred in assault reports

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Officials at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's psychiatric clinic failed to cooperate with police when notified of patient-on-patient assaults, a grand jury said, finding that they apparently misconstrued state and federal medical privacy laws as limiting how much information they can turn over.

The grand jury recommended that lawmakers amend the state's Mental Health Procedures Act so the Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic and similar facilities won't feel constrained to help police. The grand jury stopped short of recommending criminal charges against those who failed to cooperate with police in the earlier investigations.

"(U)ntil the initiation of this grand jury investigation, the staff of WPIC, as a general practice, never contacted Pittsburgh Police Department about allegations of criminal activity, particularly sexual assaults that occurred on WPIC premises," the report said.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. called for a grand jury after an 8-year-old girl reported being sexually assaulted by a 14-year-old boy in a playroom at the clinic in March 2013 when both were patients. The boy was eventually prosecuted in juvenile court, but city police were denied access to photograph the crime scene and a county child welfare caseworker complained that clinic staff delayed her investigation, among other issues.

Instead of turning such matters over to police — the report detailed six other assault allegations dating to 2007 — "an 'internal' investigation was conducted by members of the staff of WPIC, the results of which were considered 'confidential,'" the grand jury found.

A UPMC spokesman declined to comment on the report, which was made public Monday.

But the hospital network's attorney, John Conti, wrote in response to the report that UPMC agrees the state mental health law should be amended to allow for more disclosures. However, Conti insisted that the clinic has a duty to conduct internal investigations — though he said, "Those inquiries can and will, however, be conducted in the future in a manner that is more mindful of the parallel responsibilities of law enforcement, particularly in regard to preserving physical evidence."

The grand jury found that the clinic's staff would delay in providing records or other evidence once police learned about the assaults, usually from a victim's family.

The grand jury found that the clinic's staff led victims' families to believe that the internal investigations "cure all evils" while, instead, they actually kept "the 'dirty little secret' of sexual assaults that were occurring at WPIC away from the public eye."

Zappala said, "The goal now is to ensure that all facilities within Allegheny County that take part in psychiatric treatment are in compliance with the recommendations made in the report."

Conti confirmed that UPMC planned to work with Zappala's office but stressed that UPMC is in a difficult position when both the attacker and the victim are patients.

"In every single case" cited by the grand jury, Conti said, "the staff had immediate clinical obligations to both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator, including some of the most stringent obligations of confidentiality imposed under law."

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