Don't blame escape on budget


POSTED: Tuesday, December 08, 2009

It is an oversimplification to blame recent budget cuts for lax security at the Hawaii State Hospital, but there is no doubt that the Kaneohe psychiatric facility needs urgent attention to reduce an unacceptable risk to public safety.

When David True Seal scaled a 14-foot security fence and walked away on Thursday, the accused child molester became the seventh escapee this year at a facility from which an average of six people a year flee; the five-year average includes a low of three escapes in the best year and nine in the worst. Clearly, the security issue precedes the state's current fiscal crisis.

Honolulu police remain on the lookout for Seal. Citing patient privacy laws, state health officials refused to characterize how much of a threat he poses, but court records make it obvious. The day before he escaped, the state had sought permission to involuntarily medicate Seal, 30, who in 2002 was acquitted by reason of insanity of two counts of first-degree sexual assault and kidnapping. He had been accused of snatching an 8-year-old girl in a Lahaina park on Halloween night 2001 and trying to rape her before a rescuer intervened.

State Sen. Clayton Hee, who represents the Windward Oahu district where the Hawaii State Hospital is located, told Star-Bulletin reporter Rob Shikina that state budget cuts have exacerbated “;an already explosive ongoing situation,”; with too few medical staff and security guards overseeing a crowded facility housing a growing number of criminally insane patients.

The hospital housed 203 patients the day Seal escaped, the maximum for which the state is licensed, and well above the optimal population of about 170; that number includes both “;forensic”; cases and regular psychiatric patients.

Conditions at the hospital have improved markedly since the early 1990s, when the place was so overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary that the federal government imposed oversight. That U.S. supervision was lifted in 2004, based on improvements forged largely through appropriate state spending. Those gains must be maintained, and can be, through a combination of continued funding, smart budgeting, effective management and staff vigilance.

Budget cuts may be a factor in the recent escape, but they are not the sole cause, and should not become the default excuse for preventable security failures.

As concerned members of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board have noted in the past, individuals sent to the State Hospital rather than to jail are deemed patients, not prisoners. But that distinction makes them no less a threat to public safety once they unlawfully leave the grounds.