Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Authorities and Officials fail miserably investigating each other

CONNECTICUT NEWS

A Mom's Sleuthing Leads To Guilty Plea

February 14, 2007
By ALAINE GRIFFIN, Courant Staff Writer
MIDDLETOWN -- For months, Jane Couto agonized about her mentally disabled daughter's health, wondering why medication that was once effective was no longer helping the young woman's fatigue and depression.

Then one day when Melissa Couto was home visiting, sunlight shining through a window revealed that a capsule of medicine for Melissa was nearly empty. It appeared that someone at the Westbrook residential treatment facility in which Melissa Couto was living was tampering with her medication.

But Jane Couto didn't wait for police to investigate.

With the help of her younger daughter, Ashley, Couto hid small cameras in air purifiers and a clock radio inside Melissa's room at Vista Vocational & Life Skills Center.

The mother-daughter detective team helped police nab one of the facility's workers, Cheri Oman, who pleaded guilty Tuesday in Superior Court to criminal charges related to the drug tampering.

"This woman took away my daughter's independence and the trust we had in people who were supposed to take care of her," Couto, 43, of North Stonington, said after Tuesday's court hearing.

Oman, 44, of Preston, had faced 16 years in prison if convicted of reckless endangerment and illegally manufacturing a controlled substance. When she is sentenced in April, Oman could get up to two years in prison, according to the court-indicated plea deal.

Prosecutor Maureen Platt said she intends to argue for the full two-year prison sentence for Oman. Platt said Tuesday the tampered medicine "could have been absolutely tragic" for Melissa Couto, now 23.

"Sadly enough, some of her responsibility was to ensure that the patients were safe and accounted for," Platt said about Oman. "It's sort of ironic."

During visits home last winter and spring, Melissa was tired and slept a lot. Melissa routinely took Focalin, a form of Ritalin, an antidepressant and another drug that helped prevent fatigue. When Couto opened the pill capsules, she noticed inconsistent amounts of medication inside.

Last July, Jane and Ashley Couto, 20, a college student, installed the cameras in Melissa's room at Vista, on Old Clinton Road. The lenses were aimed at the nightstand in which the medication was stored.

On at least three late nights and early mornings, the camera recorded Oman, sometimes carrying a flashlight, entering the room, court records say. She would shine the flashlight on the faces of Melissa and her roommate and then "bend down toward the nightstand ... extending her arm," court records state. Recordings of similar actions taped over a four-week period were turned over to police.

Oman was an overnight team leader at Vista and had worked there since September 2004. When confronted by police, Oman first denied tampering with the medication. When police told her about the hidden cameras, Oman "then admitted to stealing the victim's Focalin capsules and even replacing the Focalin capsules with Effexor and aspirin," court records say. Oman told police she used the Focalin because she "was having trouble staying awake at night" during her overnight shift at the facility.

Helen K. Bosch, executive director of Vista, said Oman has been fired. In a statement released Tuesday, Bosch called the medicine tampering "an extremely unusual case" and said all Vista employees undergo criminal background checks as well as checks with the state Department of Mental Retardation and state Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Since this incident, we have instituted a policy that requires a universal pre-hire drug screening. Additionally, there have always been systems in place to protect personal items such as medicines for each individual," the statement says.

Melissa Couto said she never wants to return to Vista. She now works at a local supermarket and is in the care of her mother, who said she will no longer trust a facility to care for her daughter.

"This shows that you should always be aware of what's going on at a place where you put a family member's life in the hands of another," Jane Couto said. If she didn't plant the cameras, Couto said she believes she still would be struggling to find out what was ailing her daughter.

Jane Couto has hired a lawyer since Oman's arrest and said she may donate the $6,000 worth of surveillance equipment she bought to police.

Contact Alaine Griffin at agriffin@courant.com.

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[click here] for my complaint regarding officials and authorities not investigating themselves. Priests did a poor job of policing themselves. Those of a flock, fly together, and cover for each other.

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