WAUCHULA, Florida -- The Florida Institute of Neurologic Rehabilitation is under investigation for numerous complaints from patients and patients' families for abuse and, in some cases, deaths.
FINR has already lost a $5,000,000 wrongful death lawsuit, and Allstate Insurance is suing them for $7,000,000. But not everyone is upset with the institute.
In small room, 21-year-old Casey Bicknell, who was injured in a car accident, sits in a motorized wheelchair trying to make a computer screen answer a question "Yes" or "No" for his rehab trainer. His father watches.
"In this world of traumatic brain injury, you're not sure what you get. You just know you're scared and hoping for everything. FINR has helped us make that hope come true," said Barry Bicknell.
While many feel the same way Bicknell does, there are others who aren't happy with the institute.
In an undercover tape obtained by the 10 News Investigators, two burly caretakers are shown elbowing a brain injured patient in the chest up to 30 times. The patient, wearing a helmet and knee pads, is helpless to fight back. Both caretakers have been arrested and are facing criminal charges.
This incident is far from the only ugly incident at FINR, which has loved ones and a former patient irate.
"I'm furious. I don't know how this amount of abuse could be overlooked," said Jessica Alopaeus, whose brother swallowed 22 AA batteries and several fish hooks just to get out of FINR. Alopaeus is so angry with FINR, she started a website and petition asking people to help close the organization down.
And Alopaeus isn't the only one angry with FINR.
"Everything they told me had been a lie and I was just flabbergasted when I got there," said Janet Clark, a former patient.
"All of those people deserve better and it (FINR) needs to be closed," said Heather Hicks, whose father died at the institute.
Her father, Reginald, came to FINR after suffering a brain injury in a car accident, and things went downhill soon after he arrived. He fell and had to be rushed to the hospital. When Hicks returned to FINR, he was on a feeding tube and was restricted to a liquid diet. Four days later, a FINR employee took Hicks to the cafeteria, where he was given solid food that he aspirated into his lung and died. Heather Hicks had just left to drive back to Tampa.
"I got a text and a phone call saying, basically, that he was going to the hospital. So, I drove there. When I got there, he was...they were doing CPR on him...and he didn't make," said Hicks.
Michael Lieux, a former Marine with a massive brain injury, is another patient that didn't make it. Lieux died as staff members were applying what's called a BARR, or Brief Assisted Required Relaxation technique or takedown. Dr. Jeffery Walden said it is used on patients that are agitated and need to be restrained.
"The procedure itself involves placing the person face down on a padded mat. They are held in place by trained staff who are certified and go through a rectification process annually, and they are held in place until they calm down," said Dr. Walden.
In Lieux's case, four staffers tussled with him because they thought the 250 pound former Marine had taken an extra snack cake out of the kitchen. The family's attorney, Howard Kay, explained what happened.
"He came out of the shower and he was naked and they grabbed him, and they started throwing his clothes around. He was a Marine and he always kept everything tidy, and that aggravated him, so a struggle ensued. So they took him to the ground and held him there. And he defecated and they didn't stop. And he urinated and they didn't stop. And then he stopped breathing and they didn't stop, and he died."
Kay won a $5,000,000 judgment against FINR, which initially told Lieux's mother, Una Marshall, her son died from epilepsy when, in fact, he was asphyxiated on the floor. His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. However, she didn't learn the truth until a FINR caseworker told her what really happened.
"It's just hard to believe something like that happened to your child at a place like that, where they were supposed to be taking care of him," she said.
FINR charges up to $1,850 a day to take care of patients, and can receive as much as a million dollars a year per patient. A 2008 report from the Protection and Advocacy Services in the District of Columbia, which sent 21 patients to FINR, found violations of numerous District of Columbia human rights policies, including physical restraint without a written doctor's order and patients alleging staff cursing at them and treating them "like garbage."
Janet Clark, who went in for a two-week evaluation, spent more than a year in FINR as a patient. She said the BARR restraint takedowns often injured people, and violence like the caretakers exhibited were common place.
"We were living in terror, all of us were living in terror 24/7. You never knew what was going to happen to you," said Clark.
Program Director Bennie Colbert wants people to understand what happened at FINR isn't the norm. "It would be absolutely ludicrous for anyone to suggest that an effective business model would be to market our program internationally and to bring clients onto this campus and allow them to be mistreated," he said while showing 10 News around the FINR campus.
FINR owner Joseph Brennick is adamant that the allegations about FINR are coming through an orchestrated campaign from a Tallahassee public relations firm, which represents a mining company that owns the property surrounding FINR. Brennick said his land sits on two billion dollars worth of phosphate, and calls the allegations a land grab.
"I believe it is a land grab, and eventually they want to put me out of business and buy the land out of bankruptcy," said Brennick.
But regardless of the phosphate company there, a lot of people are as adamant in their belief that they or their loved ones were mistreated.
"Maybe some of them, their experiences weren't that enjoyable for them. They've moved on and they've gone to other places," said Brennick, adding that he can't talk about the people that have died there.
Since 10 News began working on this story, Allstate Insurance has filed a federal lawsuit alleging FINR patients have been beaten, bruised, abused, warehoused, kept captive when they wanted to leave, and received inappropriate treatment. The Florida Department of Children and Families has also received more than 500 complaints about the FINR.
But clearly there are patients and families who are thrilled with the treatment they received at FINR. Critics say that doesn't make up for the allegations of dissatisfied families and patients, as well as the Washington DC report alleging human rights violations and the Allstate Insurance federal suit alleged a pattern or abuse and violence at FINR.
FINR points out when the staffer showed the undercover video of the beatings, the organization checked its own tapes and turned them over to authorities. FINR says the Allstate suit has no merit. Meanwhile, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) said FINR is violating its license by treating 50 patients who are not brain or spinal cord injured. AHCA wants to remove those patients from FINR. The organization is fighting that move.
All Heather Hicks wants is for this never to happen to anyone else's father. But until the state or other official agencies take action, FINR will continue operating as it is now, helping many, but having the potential to injure some of the most vulnerable people who desperately need care.