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Schrader, other state health officials found in contempt

Acting state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader speaks to reporters outside Baltimore City Circuit Court after a judge found him and three other state officials in contempt. (Bryan P. Sears/The Daily Record)

Acting state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader speaks to reporters outside Baltimore City Circuit Court after a judge found him and three other state officials in contempt. (Bryan P. Sears/The Daily Record)

Five Maryland Health Department officials, including acting Secretary Dennis R. Schrader, were found in contempt Thursday by a Baltimore judge who expressed frustration over ongoing concerns about delays in defendants receiving mental health evaluations and treatment.

Senior Baltimore City Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin ordered Schrader to oversee the opening and staffing of 60 treatment beds as well as hire new staffing and to stop ignoring judges’ orders regarding when defendants are to be moved to state hospitals.

“Secretary Schrader, I say fix the problem and do it now,” Rasin said, looking directly at Schrader, who was sitting in the courtroom gallery. “In fact, I am ordering you to do it now.”

All of the conditions must be met by the end of the year, Rasin added.

Schrader, speaking to reporters after the hearing, said he has been “very sensitive to this issue” since taking over in December.

“We are following the recommendations issued by (former Health Secretary Van Mitchell) last August,” Schrader said. “I’ve been driving the staff.”

Sharon Bogins Eberhart of the Office of the Public Defender, told reporters she’s not convinced Schrader and the department will fulfill the judge’s order.

“If they were to do it, it would be a tremendous step forward,” said Bogins Eberhart.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Attorney General said the decision is under review.

“The AG’s office already appealed this case before this ruling came out,” Bogins Eberhart said.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office did not respond to questions about the appeal.

 

The order contained in a scathing 42-page decision comes after seven days of hearings stretching over the last few months and following earlier concerns dating back five years, according to Rasin. In June, a Baltimore City District Court judge ordered the department to develop a plan to address the issue.

In her order, Rasin attributed the failure to act as a budgetary decision and chided state officials.

“As is often the case, it seems to be all about money,” Rasin wrote in her decision.

In addition to providing the 60 additional beds and staff, Rasin ordered Schrader to obey all court orders related to admitting defendants to state hospitals, including meeting deadlines set by judges.

Deputy Secretary Barbara Barzon was ordered to assist Schrader and to ensure that Dr. Erik Roskes, director of the department’s Office of Forensic Services, satisfies Rasin’s order that he fully report back to judges on issues of a defendant’s competency to stand trial.

Rasin ordered Ina Taller, clinical director at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, to open a 20-bed unit, with full staffing, by Dec. 31 — part of the judge’s requirements for Schrader to purge his contempt finding.

Danielle Robinson, director of pre-trial services at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, can purge her contempt finding by obeying and admitting defendants as ordered by judges, Rasin said.

Rasin’s finding of contempt comes as Schrader is in court suing Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp for pay dating back to July 1.

Kopp has refused to pay him, citing budget language passed by the General Assembly after Gov. Larry Hogan withdrew Schrader’s nomination and then re-appointed him after the 2017 session ended.

And while Schrader’s legislative entanglements have nothing to do with the case heard in Baltimore, some lawmakers earlier this year raised concerns about Schrader’s lack of health care experience.

Schrader is a retired U.S. Navy captain and a professional engineer who has held senior positions in the public and private sectors. He served in executive positions at the University of Maryland Medical System Corporation from 1987 to 2003 and as Maryland’s homeland security director and as a Howard County elected official.

A Hogan spokesman in December said there was more to Schrader than what is readily apparent in his resume.

“Most people know, running an agency that’s large and complex has much more to do with being able to delegate through complex systems,” Douglass Mayer said in December. “Dennis has decades of that kind of experience.”

The judge directed most of her ire at Schrader, whom she described as someone who hadn’t taken responsibility for the problems he inherited when he took over in December for former Secretary Van Mitchell. She found Schrader’s testimony at times to be in error compared to other health department officials or “less than convincing or reassuring.” The judge also wrote that Schrader doesn’t know the players involved in the issue.

“He perceives his responsibility to be to direct staff to solve the problems,” Rasin wrote. “He characterized himself as impatient to get things done and full of questions for staff. But the overall impression is that he is disconnected from the process.”

“This court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that Secretary Schrader, by virtue of willful ignorance and indifference, as well as willful failures to act, has been part of a chain of participants who have violated court orders along with the four other respondents,” Rasin said in her written decision. “This is not vicarious liability. The secretary had the necessary knowledge.”

Rasin’s comments stand in stark contrast to those she made about Mitchell in dismissing a contempt case against him in August 2016. During that hearing, she described Mitchell as forthright and “working in a good-faith effort” to correct the problem of too few beds and inadequate staffing.

“This is the first official, and he’s the man at the top, to admit there is a crisis,” Rasin said at the time, adding that Mitchell had gone “above and beyond” the role of a secretary.

Outside the courthouse, Schrader said Rasin failed to take into account actions already planned by the department that will exceed the requirements in her order.

“We’re currently in process, have brought on 20 new beds, and will have 95 new beds by the end of the year or next year. We’ve reorganized forensic services by putting a lot of new resources in. I respect the court, but I’m very disappointed that they did not reflect any of the work that we’ve been doing very aggressively. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. I am very committed to solving this problem and I am driving it as we speak.”


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