BUTNER, N.C. — Two employees at a state mental hospital are on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into a cell phone photo of a partially nude patient.
Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Renee McCoy said Tuesday that the incident happened at Central Regional Hospital in November but that hospital administrators found out about the photo on June 17.
The employee, a health care technician who McCoy said used a personal cell phone, was suspended immediately, she said.
Personal communication devices are not approved for use during patient care, and any photo taken of a patient is in violation of DHHS policy, McCoy said.
"It's a violation of patient rights and dignity, something that we're charged with taking care of these people," Luckey Welsh, DHHS's director of facilities, said Tuesday afternoon. "For an employee to do this is absolutely unbelievable to use."
DHHS has a zero-tolerance policy toward employees found to have abused or neglected patients. It was put in place earlier this year, and several employees have since been fired over allegations of misconduct.
Welsh said the patient's face is cropped from the photo and that there is no clear sign it was distributed outside the hospital.
"It's regrettable. We don't like it whatsoever. We're fully investigating, and we'll take swift action," Welsh said.
The State Bureau of Investigation is also investigating the allegations.
The alleged photo is the latest is a series of problems for DHHS and Central Regional.
In April, three employees at the hospital's Dorothea Dix campus in Raleigh were fired and a fourth resigned amid allegations that some had sex with female prisoners working there.
An internal DHHS investigation found that Dix employees had also enabled inmates from the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women to set up bank accounts, access e-mail and make unauthorized phone calls.
Earlier this year, an employee was charged with assaulting a child at the hospital's John Umstead campus in Butner, although a DHHS investigation found no wrongdoing.
The hospital has also been at risk of losing federal funding several times over the past year. Most recently, it was at risk following a February suicide attempt at the hospital's main campus.
Vicki Smith, executive director of mental health advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina, said Tuesday, that the latest accusation is appalling and said more stringent training is necessary for mental health staff.
"It's alarming in the extreme," Smith said. "It's beyond a violation of privacy and goes into sexual exploitation."
As state hospitals try to move beyond the rash of safety concerns and abuse cases, Welsh said he worries the actions of a few once again tarnish the reputation of many.
"We do so many good things every day that do not get reported," he said. "What gets reported are the bad things."