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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital Could Lose Funding Over Patient Care

Timberlawn Mental Health System
A historical photo of Timberlawn Mental Health System, which opened in 1917.

One of the state’s oldest residential treatment centers for people with mental illness could lose its federal funding on Tuesday. Timberlawn Mental Health System, a Pennsylvania-based chain that’s been in Dallas since 1917, is in trouble with regulators for violating patient care and safety.

Whether or not federal funding is pulled on Tuesday, kids are being sent to other psychiatric hospitals across North Texas.

In December 2014, 37-year-old Brittney Bennetts checked herself into Timberlawn. Two days later, she hanged herself on a doorknob.

“The records indicate that they had identified her as risk of suicide -- specifically by hanging,” says Jessica Huseman. She's a freelance journalist for The Dallas Morning News. She spent months compiling data on Timberlawn and Bennetts' case.

Huseman reports that Timberlawn workers put Bennetts in a room with a doorknob that had previously been identified as “ligature risks,” meaning the handles could be used by patients to hang themselves.

Despite having identified those the risk months before, Timberlawn didn't change the knobs and Bennetts hanged herself from a doorknob with a sheet.

A Failed Report Card

When officials with the U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, or CMS, started investigating Timberlawn, they uncovered more safety violations.

“[Timberlawn had] also failed to check on other suicidal patients,” Huseman says. “There were some safety concerns in the hospital, generally exposed wiring, trash can liners that were left available to suicidal patients that could have easily been used for self-harm.”

After multiple warnings and follow-up inspections, CMS gave the hospital a June deadline for improvements. The final check didn’t go well. CMS decided to pull millions in federal funding, which Huseman estimates makes up about one-third of Timberlawn’s $65 million patient revenue.

“To put this into perspective, this only happened to one other hospital in the last year and a half and there were 531 federally funded hospitals in the state of Texas," Huseman says.

Timberlawn's CEO wouldn’t talk with KERA, but in a statement said that cutting federal funding would mean the 98-year-old hospital would have to close its doors: 

Removing the 144 licensed mental health beds and the outpatient services that are currently available to the Dallas community at Timberlawn will  further strain the local mental health system already struggling to meet the needs of  patients. Timberlawn has served as the “front door” to children and adolescents under the age of 18 who are brought in under an emergency detention initiated by a peace officer. This results in these young patients not being mixed with adults thus sheltering them in a safer environment and providing law enforcement with a consistent, known location to take adolescent patients who have a mental health issue and are suicidal or homicidal. The system currently is in crisis, even without school being in session, when the system gets taxed further.  The closure of the hospital would dramatically increase the pressure on the community and many seriously ill patients—particularly the youths and adolescents—would not have access to necessary, proper and adequate treatment. 

The Impact On North Texas Mental Health Services

Timberlawn has long been a home for kids with mental health issues in North Texas.

“They are a big part of the public mental health system and the broader mental health system in Dallas,” says Matt Roberts, president of Mental Health America of Greater Dallas. He says Timberlawn has also helped keep adolescents out of jail.

“They tend to see a lot of public sector patients that are paid for by Medicare and Medicaid, the NorthStar program ... and they also see a lot of adolescent folks,” he says.

And although Roberts is concerned about the violations, he says he hopes Timberlawn can get its act together.

Some parents who’ve had their kids in treatment there have less sympathy.

Unhappy Parents

“I wish it would close down,” Trina Karwasinski says. “I would hope that these children could go somewhere else to be better taken care of.”

Earlier this year, Karwasinski learned her daughter was cutting herself. Several of her friends also were cutting themselves.

“They would get online at night and they would cut together,” she says. “It was a group thing.”

After taking her daughter to a hospital in Rowlett, Kawasinki says a social worker evaluated her daughter and sent her to Timberlawn in Dallas, where she stayed for several nights. She is still upset by what she says she saw.

“The floor was filthy," she says. "When we went into the lobby the chairs smelled like human urine, I could see there was food rotting. I had to bring my daughter socks almost every time I went because her feet were so dirty.”

Karwasinski’s complaints go beyond aesthetics. She claims her daughter had no privacy in the bathroom and was given medication without her consent. While KERA couldn't confirm this with Timberlawn, Huseman, the reporter, says she’s heard similar complaints from other parents.

“One of the saddest things to come out of all of this," Huseman says, "is that the children of North Texas who are facing behavioral problems have really lost a stronghold. [Timberlawn is] the largest outlet for children’s behavioral health in this area.”

And regardless of whether federal funding is pulled on Tuesday, kids are already being sent to other psychiatric hospitals -- from Glen Oaks in Greenville to Hickory Trail in DeSoto. 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.