5 Charged With Abusing Mentally Disabled in Nebraska

Five workers at a Nebraska center for developmentally disabled adults have been charged with abusing residents after an investigation found they hit, slapped and choked residents, often until they fell unconscious.

Gage County Attorney Roger Harris announced Monday that he had filed felony charges ranging from abuse of a vulnerable adult to theft and strangulation against five employees of the Beatrice State Development Center.

The charges come more than a month after an employee reported the abuse to Nebraska Adult Protective Services. Harris received the results of a subsequent investigation by the Nebraska State Patrol and the center a little more than a week ago.

He said charges have been filed against Cameron Barnes, Cody Creek, Matthew Johnson, Matthew Pangborn and Carmen Yates, but the charges were sealed to protect victims and witnesses "and prevent prejudicial pretrial publicity that could cause problems with the jury pool."

Public phone listings for Barnes, Creek, Johnson and Yates could not be found Monday. A message left by The Associated Press at a listing for a Matt Pangborn in Beatrice was not immediately returned.

"Obviously we take these matters very seriously, as does the administration at BSDC," Harris said. "The investigations have been thorough and required time to make sure all culpable individuals were properly charged."

State police and the center released a report on their investigation earlier this month. It said residents at the center were routinely slapped, shoved, violently pinched, punched, ridiculed and choked, often until they fell unconscious. At least seven residents were victims.

The abuse appeared not to be an attempt to control unruly residents, but malevolent acts intended to torture or provoke them into an agitated state, state officials said.

Workers who choked residents often told them that doing so "reboots or resets him so his behavior will change and prevent him from having bad behavior," the report said. The term "rebooting" also was used as a euphemism among staff for choking residents, the report said.

The report also described a staffer routinely hitting one resident in the groin with a ball, workers cursing and berating residents and one employee taking a $50 gift card a resident received for Christmas.

Harris said he expects charges to be filed against those who failed to report the abuse, although he did not say when he expected that to happen.

The report found the abuse happened in one section of one of five care facilities on the center's grounds. That section, inside what is known as the Kennedy buildings, was an intermediate care facility for people with intellectual disabilities. It has since been closed and residents moved to other homes on the campus. State officials said they planned to close the aging facility anyway and reports of abuse merely prompted them to act sooner.

Allegations of neglect and abuse at the center aren't new. A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of eight former residents in 2009 claimed state officials had allowed the facility to become unsafe.

The lawsuit was filed after the state moved 47 residents considered medically fragile from the center in January 2009. That move was ordered following the death of 18-year-old Olivia Manes. The state acknowledged Manes received inadequate care in the hours before she died and paid her family $600,000 in a settlement.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf later dismissed the lawsuit, citing state officials' qualified immunity, which generally protects government workers from being sued for performing their duties.

A U.S. Justice Department investigation reported about 200 cases of alleged neglect and abuse at the center from late 2006 to late 2007 and concluded the center had a "cultural undercurrent that betrays human decency at the most fundamental levels."

Manes' death came seven months after the state promised, in a settlement with the Justice Department, to provide better care at the center.