N.S. facility for mentally disabled overcrowded when abuse occurred: report

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HALIFAX - Overcrowding at a Nova Scotia facility that cares for the mentally disabled created tension among its residents in the time that 22 cases of abuse were reported, a provincial government review has concluded.
Clothes dressers were jammed against beds in two-person rooms, forcing residents to drag them across the floor to open them, the review of the Riverview Residential Centre found.
In one unit in the 88-year-old building, 24 residents share four bathrooms.
"It was observed that bathroom areas on the units do not have doors but a curtain hanging in the doorway," said the 43-page report released Friday.
Such conditions in the facility, which houses 96 people, made residents upset, the report said.
"Frustration clients often feel as a result of the crowded conditions and lack of quiet, private space is quite apparent," it said.
The review, which was launched in the spring, makes 93 recommendations for improved management and better living conditions. A $22-million renovation is already underway that will create three separate group homes on the grounds and provide single rooms for residents in the main building.
Within the past three years, there have been 13 cases of residents abusing other residents and nine cases of staff-on-resident abuse, according to the Department of Community Services.
The abuse includes an instance where a staff member jammed a bar of soap into a resident's mouth in July 2009 and another incident last year when a staff member sprayed water on a female resident's head until she was gasping for air.
There were also several documented cases of male residents grabbing the breasts of female residents over the past two years, and one case of a male resident being grabbed in the crotch by another male resident while he was in the bathroom this May.
The examples are contained in documents that were obtained by The Canadian Press earlier this year.
Friday's report doesn't blame the abuse directly on the overcrowding. But it says it led to tensions.
"They (staff) consider these conditions as a significant factor in conflict between clients and the ongoing behavioural difficulties that many individual clients experience," said the report, adding that the rooms residents sleep in provide no privacy.
"These rooms in particular offer clients no privacy or sense of a place to spend quiet or alone time."
The report briefly dealt with the documented cases of abuse at the facility, noting it had the most in the province.
But it said the abuse was not systemic and that each case was reported and appropriate action was taken.
The report recommends that all staff undergo mandatory training to report abuse and that records be kept to ensure all of the staff attend.
Ken Johnson, the vice-chairman of the board of directors at Riverview, said the board will review the report's findings and devise a plan to address its recommendations.
"We're going to try to put an action plan in place," he said, declining further comment.
Mary Rothman, the director of the Nova Scotia Association of Community Living, said there is a link between overcrowded conditions at large centres and abuse.
"I think that people are living in crowded, crowded conditions and the staff are working in terrible, terrible conditions themselves," she said.
"The conditions sound like something you would have read about from a building in the 1800s."
Nova Scotia Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse says the report will hasten the renovations needed at Riverview, and she believes it will help end cases of abuse.
"I feel this is a new beginning for Riverview. The renovations will make a huge difference," the NDP minister said.
"I'm going to request a report from the facility on a monthly basis ... I will be keeping a close eye on the whole process and how it flows."
But Manning MacDonald, the Liberal community services critic, said the province is moving too slowly in its efforts to phase out six other large adult residential centres and shifting residents into smaller homes in the community.
"The report highlights the difficulties at one particular home ... the problem is much bigger than that," he said.
Peterson-Rafuse said she will be requesting reports on the condition of the other facilities, but added that it is premature to say whether they are experiencing similar problems.
The report also said the oversight of expenditures at Riverview - which has run a deficit for the past six years - wasn't strong enough.

Organizations: Riverview Residential Centre, Canadian Press, Nova Scotia Association of Community Living Nova Scotia Community Services

Geographic location: Nova Scotia

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