A federal agency is examining actions of the Colorado Department of Human Services that date back to March 2015, when the DHS sanctioned a strip search of mentally disabled residents in their care.

Three reports, two by state agencies and one by an advocacy group, say CDHS performed what amounted to illegal strip searches of at least 50 people who live in their group homes and at a day program at Pueblo Regional Center.

One report says 62 residents were strip searched, another says 50 were fully examined and 12 either refused or received partial examinations.

Attorney Mari Newman, with Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, represents some of the people who were searched. She said what happened is a violation of their rights.

“This is one of the most outrageous abuses of a vulnerable population, people with mental disabilities who don’t have the legal capacity to consent to searches, and who said ‘no, we do not want to take off our clothes, we do not want to show you our naked bodies and genitals,’” Newman told 9Wants To Know. “There is no legitimate justification for the searches being done, how they were done and when they were done.”

The searches were conducted at the end of March 2015 and immediately the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment received ten complaints from guardians and residents of Pueblo Regional Center.

CDPHE investigated and found the DHS “failed to ensure individuals’ rights to personal privacy, dignity and respect. The DHS also failed to allow the individuals or their guardians the opportunity to give informed consent to inspections of their bodies.”

The CDPHE report went on to say, “body inspections were completed by DHS governmental employees without the persons served [by PRC] being adequately informed about the purpose of the inspection, what it would entail, and without obtaining informed consent from either the individuals or their appointed guardians.”

CDPHE found the searches caused significant distress to some of the people. In addition, 40 people affected were incompetent to make their own decisions and had a legal guardian appointed by the court.

“Yet no guardians were contacted to give consent to the inspections, nor were any guardians informed within 24 hours of the suspected abuse,” stated one of the CDPHE reports.

The report added people who didn’t want to be searched felt they had no choice. Many residents acted out and were visibly upset as a result.

DHS declined 9Wants To Know’s interview request, instead emailing 9NEWS a statement it released about the issue a year ago.

Part of it directly contradicts the findings of CDPHE. In June 2015, DHS told the public “residents were given an opportunity to decline or end the wellness check.”

Between the press release and the CDPHE investigation, it’s apparent the PRC staff did not properly report abuse dating back to Nov. 7, 2014. That’s when a PRS staff member found threatening words scratched on to the back and stomachs of non-verbal residents.

PRC staff didn’t report the incident to police for a month, and generally didn’t follow policies when it came to that incident.

Over the course of March 2015, CDHS discovered “repeated failures by PRC to report or investigate allegations” of abuse.

The strip searches were conducted four months after the initial report of abuse was mishandled.

“The allegations of mistreatment, abuse, neglect and exploitation we had received were very disturbing,” Reggie Bicha, CDHS executive director, said in the press release the agency published in 2015 and provided to 9NEWS as comment for Monday’s story, “and I felt we needed to take action to make sure residents were safe. We had significant factual basis to believe residents in all ten group homes and the Day Program were subject to unacceptable and imminent risk to their health and safety.”

DHS called the strip searches wellness checks. In another interview Bicha referred to what happened as a “skin check.”

“The strip searches conducted by the state were outrageously invasive and they did not protect any human dignity, in fact, the state personnel came in wanting to conduct these searches in public places,” Newman told 9Wants To Know.

“These people, in front of one another, without getting their consent or letting them go into a private spot, and what they did is they made them strip down entirely, take off their shirts, take off their pants, take off their bras and underwear. Take off, for people who had to wear diapers, had to take off their incontinence products and search their genitals, their breasts. Lifted up their penises. When that’s what they were doing, this was as invasive as anything you can imagine." Newman said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Center for Medicaid Services -- essentially the federal government -- is looking into the strip searches at PRC in March 2015.

CMS staff have visited the facilities in April 2016 and are reviewing their findings. It’s not clear if the feds will take any disciplinary action against DHS.

But, if the government did take disciplinary action, it could range from a plan of correction for past violations, to fines, to restrictions on new admissions, or, in rare cases, termination from the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

All of the people affected receive Medicaid funding. The Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing reimburses for services residents receive at PRC. The agency did its own report on the March 2015 strip searches.

Its reports said several staff members from PRC, including the director, assistant director, director of nursing and several other staff were placed on administrative leave following the comprehensive unclothed exam.
Disability Law Colorado did a secondary investigation of the body inspections at PRC.

“We believe that there were other possible options available to the state, including providing residents and guardians reasonable notice,” the organization said in their statement to 9NEWS, “and the true opportunity to consent or refuse such an invasive search.”

The June 2016 press release provided by DHS said as a result of the wellness check, the Pueblo Sheriff sought charges against seven current and former PRC staff who were involved in six cases of abuse.

9NEWS reached out to the District Attorney in Pueblo to check how many were actually prosecuted. The information provided to 9NEWS late Monday was that some people were prosecuted, but the exact number was not immediately available.

In May of 2015, more than 80 out of 100 Colorado legislators signed a letter addressed to Gov. John Hickenlooper citing concerns with the DHS.

Legislative Letter to Governor by Allison Sylte on Scribd