PUEBLO, Colo. – Eighteen disabled people housed at the troubled Pueblo Regional Center and their families are suing Colorado’s governor, the Colorado Department of Human Services and a handful of former and current employees over claims they were illegally strip-searched in March 2015.
The plaintiffs and their attorneys say almost a dozen CDHS employees illegally strip-searched people housed at the center, which is operated by CDHS, without consent or a warrant. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Pueblo District Court.
"In this case what the state did is just roll over the rights of people who were too vulnerable to refuse, too vulnerable to stand up for themselves," said Mari Newman, an attorney representing the victims.
A series of reports from federal agencies and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment over the past two years has found many cases of alleged abuse at the center, which serves people with severe intellectual disabilities.
A federal investigation from this year found one resident performed a sexual act in exchange for a soda and another was burned with a blow dryer to raise her body temperature.
According to the report, several other residents had words scratched into their skin, which staffers blamed on "paranormal activity."
The report included information about the alleged strip searches and found that “serious incidents” were still happening as recently as April.
Eleven employees at the center were placed on leave in April 2015 after the strip search allegations came to light, as well as allegations of abuse and unlawful sexual contact.
Reggie Bicha, who was the executive director of CDHS at the time, is among those named as defendants in the suit, as is Gov. John Hickenlooper and several CDHS higher-ups.
The suit says that on March 25, 2015, Tracy Myszak, who was the Division Director for Regional Center Operations and is named as a defendant in the suit, ordered workers from the Wheat Ridge Regional Center to go to the Pueblo center and strip search “most or all” of the 62 residents.
It says that the strip searches “were motivated by vague, stale, and anecdotal suspicions that a few PRC residents who resided in one of the several group homes may have been abused months earlier.”
The suit says many of the residents who were searched are not able to legally consent for themselves and that neither CDHS nor the other defendants ever got consent for the search from those people’s guardians.
The searches included “nonconsensual genital contact” with the patients, some of whom have been abused before, according to the suit. It also claims some of the patients explicitly told workers “no” when they were asked if or told they could be searched.
The suit claims various defendants violated the Fourth Amendment’s clause barring unlawful search and seizure; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for failing to reasonable accommodate those at the center; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for unlawful discrimination; and the 14th Amendment’s clause over familial rights.
Some of the claims against the governor and CDHS brass are that they failed to properly train and inform their employees.
The plaintiffs are seeking “prospective injunctive relief” that would prevent similar searches in the future, economic losses, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and any possible further relief the court chooses to grant them.
Gov. Hickenlooper’s office said in October that it could appoint an independent monitor to oversee the center.