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Abuse allegations continue at youth facility 

The Cleo Wallace Center escaped criminal charges stemming from an August incident that broke a 14-year-old patient's back.

But the center is still the target of a state investigation to determine whether it will retain its license to operate.

And Ryan Beck*, who suffered a cracked vertebrae, a swollen jaw, fist-sized bruises to his chest and other assorted injuries at the hands of the staff, is still recovering from the treatment he received while at Cleo Wallace.

His parents are preparing a lawsuit against the institution as a result of their son's most recent injury.

The latest incidents at the center have sparked an ongoing investigation by the state Department of Human Services into whether the psychiatric institution for children, with facilities in Colorado Springs and Westminster, should continue to operate.

The Colorado Attorney General's office alleged after a five month investigation that the center illegally locked children in its mental hospitals, admitted more patients than permitted and overbilled and double-billed the government.


No criminal charges

Three weeks ago, 4th Judicial District Attorney Jeanne Smith announced she would not pursue criminal charges against the center for the Aug. 24 incident involving Beck and a Sept. 8 case involving another youth.

Because of the laws protecting juveniles, little has been released regarding the second incident. Smith said that case involved a teenager who suffered a head injury, but the incident was not immediately reported. As a result, she said, police were required to reconstruct what happened, and it was determined the youth had caused his own injury.

However, in the case of Ryan Beck, his parents have since come forward to protest their son's treatment and injuries.

A couple of years ago, Beck started getting into trouble at home and at school. In February 1999, Beck was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was placed with his parents' permission in Cleo Wallace and began a program that included group and family therapy sessions.

He was also put on a medical program that incorporated numerous psychotropic drugs, designed to control manic-depressive behavior.

His parents say they were worried about the side effects of the drugs, including a noticeable, uncontrollable shaking in his hands.


'Hurt pretty bad'

On Aug. 24, Beck said he tried to ask a staff member a question, but the situation escalated when he was told to go to an isolation room.

According to a police interview with the Cleo Wallace staffer in charge, Beck fell backward while he and two other adults were walking him backward, restrained.

"[Beck] fell really fast, and he hit the floor flat on his back really, I mean really hard," the staff member recounted in the police report. "When he hit, he screamed out in pain, and I knew he was hurt. I asked [another staffer] what happened, and she said that [Beck's] feet and her feet had become entangled, causing [Beck] to fall. I don't think she tripped him on purpose.

"[Beck] was yelling out in pain, so I knew he didn't just have his wind knocked out of him. I knew he was injured pretty bad because even though he is always theatrical about things, this was legitimate yelling."

Despite the back injury, the staff members turned Beck over onto his stomach and eventually moved him into the isolation room.

Records show a nurse arrived an hour later. After a five-minute exam, she determined Beck "appeared to have only sustained a deep bruise to his back." Beck was never examined by the center's doctor.

Three days later, Beck told his parents, during a visit, about his injuries. His parents immediately took him to Memorial Hospital, where an X-ray showed a cracked vertebrae.

Colorado law requires cases of suspected child abuse cases to be reported within 24 hours. But the police were not notified of the injury until the teenager was taken to the hospital. And, once there, the responding officer spoke briefly to Beck, but never conducted a thorough interview with him, his parents and lawyer say.


New charges

Colorado Springs Attorney Keith Cross pointed out that, under different circumstances, the criminal investigation might have turned out much differently. For example, if a child suffered a broken vertebrae while in the care of his parents or a babysitter, it's likely that he would have been interviewed at length by the police, he said.

"The institution is presumed to have trained staff, so why should there be a lower standard?" Cross said.

District Attorney Smith said she could find no proof of criminal wrongdoing, and late last month, the county DHS, which had temporarily halted its referrals, resumed sending children to the Cleo Wallace Center.

Both the county and the state agencies now say they've stepped up monitoring of the center's two locations.

"We expected them to retrain and have a different culture. Only as a last resort should they (the patients) be in restraints," said Lloyd Malone director of children and family services for DHS.

Cleo Wallace director Mike Montgomery was out of town and couldn't be reached for comment as of press time. According to a Nov. 24 letter from the state DHS, however, a focus on verbal de-escalation for patients who act our has resulted in a 53 percent reduction in physical restraints at the Colorado Springs facility last month.

But new charges against the center may soon be leveled. This week, District Attorney Smith said she expects a third allegation involving criminal wrongdoing will soon be brought to her for review.


'Nice and steady'

Now back at home, Ryan Beck has been taken off of psychotropic medications by his parents, believing that the drugs contributed at least in part to his mood swings while at Cleo Wallace.

Beck is still taking pain medicine for his back injury and has begun physical therapy exercises. His parents are paying for his treatment with their insurance and are paying medical co-payments out of their own pockets.

He still has nightmares about the ordeal, and his parents said he sometimes cries out in the night. But, Beck said, he's feeling much better. He's back in school, and his grades have improved. He readily admits he still has problems, but he's not acting out or "blowing up all the time."

His hands are no longer shaking uncontrollably. "See, nice and steady," he said, holding one out.

* The teenager's name has been changed to protect his identity.

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