CARBONDALE — A former NeuroRestorative employee is charged with criminal sexual assault and a lawsuit against the facility was settled out of court after a 13-year-old patient was allegedly sexually assaulted in January 2017 by her caretaker there. Documents show that the alleged incident happened before the former employee’s background check had been completed.
While NeuroRestorative was allowed to let the former employee come to work before his background check had cleared by state and DCFS regulation, it was through an apparent scheduling error that he was able to supervise the patient one-on-one, raising questions about oversight at facilities charged with caring for children.
According to its website, NeuroRestorative is a facility dedicated to rehabilitating people with “brain and spinal cord injuries and other neurological challenges.” Because they work with children, the facility is dually licensed by both Department of Child and Family Services, which handles the child welfare portion of the facility’s regulation and is guided by the federal government, and by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which handles the medical side.
According to DCFS files obtained by the newspaper with permission from the victim’s family, Dominique Timmons, 25, was hired by NeuroRestorative as a conditional employee on Nov. 18, 2016 — meaning he was not permitted to work one-on-one with patients until his entire background check cleared.
But, because of several administrative oversights, Timmons was put in a direct supervisory position over a child with a traumatic brain injury and bipolar disorder on Jan. 11, 2017. He allegedly engaged in sexual contact with her during that time, including oral and vaginal penetration.
According to the investigation reports from DCFS, the child, whose name is being withheld because she is a minor and because of the nature of the allegations, reported the incident to staff.
“(The alleged victim stated) that she did something bad last night but didn’t want to tell anyone because someone would get in trouble if she did,” according to the report.
After some discussion with a staff member, the girl eventually explained what happened.
“I had sex with staff,” the teen said. She then detailed the alleged sexual encounter, which the report says took place over the course of several hours between Jan. 11 and 12 of 2017.
“I think I need the Plan B,” the 13-year-old said, indicating that Timmons may not have used contraception.
According to the report, the alleged victim was taken to the emergency room where she was examined, but she asked to leave before the exam and evidence collection were completed.
According to the DCFS documents, Timmons was questioned Jan. 12, 2017, by Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies. During the interview, Timmons “confessed to having sexual intercourse with (the alleged victim) whom he knew was 13 years old.” The report says he commented to the detective that “he should not have gone to work while he was ‘horny.’”
Timmons was arrested that same evening by Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies.
The incident report regarding the alleged abuse at NeuroRestorative was found to be “indicated” by DCFS, meaning investigators found sufficient evidence to back up the complaint of “neglect by agency.”
Timmons is currently charged with one count of criminal sexual assault in Jackson County. According to court records, his jury trial on that charge is set to begin Monday, March 5.
A representative from NeuroRestorative Carbondale said in an emailed statement that the organization “has zero tolerance for abuse or neglect,” and that “Immediately upon learning of this allegation, we contacted law enforcement and have cooperated with their investigation.”
'Conditional employees' may work while background checks are pending
According to both state and DCFS regulations, a person can be hired and be given shifts if he or she has approved a background check. Through DCFS, the window for this conditional employment is 30 days; under state statute, it is three months.
The stipulation to this conditional employment status is that someone employed as such is never to be alone with a child. Neil Skene, special assistant to the director of DCFS, said such employees are always to be within sight of an employee with supervisor clearance.
In an email last Friday, Scott Shaw, executive director of operations for NeuroRestorative’s central region, explained the process from the company’s end.
“Prior to hire, prospective employees must complete and successfully pass the Health Care Worker Registry check conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health. This comprehensive background check pulls reports from the following systems: Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General; Illinois Sex Offenders Registration; Illinois Department of Correction Sex Offender Registry; Illinois Department of Corrections inmate search; Illinois Department of Corrections wanted fugitives and the National Sex Offender Public Registry,” Shaw said.
“In addition to the above requirements, prospective employees who will work in the adolescent integration program must also undergo a fingerprint check administered by a third party agency on behalf of DCFS. In our experience, DCFS fingerprint results are received between 30 and 90 days after submission. Prior to receiving the results of the finger print check, newly hired employees are permitted to work in a ‘conditional’ status,” he said.
After the incident and the subsequent investigation by DCFS, the employee in charge of scheduling at NeuroRestorative was given her final written warning and had her scheduling responsibilities removed. A senior administrator took over those duties, according to the DCFS report.
In a DCFS incident report filed Jan. 13, 2017, it is revealed that NeuroRestorative staff were made aware of the results of a portion of Timmons’ background check the week before the incident.
“... last week, facility staff, including (redacted) were advised ... that staff member (Dominique) Timmons had a ‘hit’ on his background and was not to be alone with any of the children,” the report states. It is not clear what caused the “hit” on Timmons’ background.
The same report indicates that staff at NeuroRestorative were notified that Timmons had passed his FBI and Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking System background checks, but had not cleared the Illinois State Police check.
The staff member in charge of scheduling told the DCFS investigator that she was the one charged with notifying staff when they are cleared to be alone with children. The report states that she indicated there were regular staff meetings where she discusses with staff “who of them are and aren’t cleared to be alone with the youth.” However, she said night staff — of which Timmons was a part — did not regularly attend the meetings and that “she did not recall having any other ongoing conversations” with Timmons regarding his clearance level.
The report also says this was the second such incident of a non-approved staff member being alone with a youth at NeuroRestorative.
Is it enough?
DCFS documents show that after the incident, NeuroRestorative implemented a name tag system, assigning colors to clearance status — this way, even employees who didn’t know one another would have some idea of where an employee should or should not be working. Also, employees who are cleared to work directly with children are highlighted on the schedule.
In an emailed statement, Skene said there are other precautions NeuroRestorative has taken. For example, he said no male may have a one-on-one meeting with a female child, and the executive director has added more clinical staff to “ensure better supervision of the children.”
The email also says that “because this is a facility treating youth with brain injuries, some children may be highly sexualized. Accordingly, the agency has opened a separate area to separate children according to their behaviors.”
Skene said currently health-care workers who work with children are allowed under DCFS regulations to work for up to 30 days with a partially completed background check.
Skene said DCFS is regulated in part by the federal government, and in late 2016, the guidelines for what steps to take when checking someone’s background increased. He said this change in the licensing minimum “clearly raised the standard.” Previously, Skene said, employees were allowed to work with children after passing only the sex offender and child neglect checks as they waited on the fingerprint component of the background check.
Skene said this change was a good one, but has created a problem of its own — he said DCFS now has a backlog of background checks to complete and no more employees to do it with. He also noted that there are meetings scheduled to begin to find better systems and help correct the problem.
Skene said implementing policy is a balancing act, especially when the regulating body is not also making regular blind checks.
“I don’t think we want to pay for, and I don’t think we want to intrude to the level of having full-time inspectors hanging around making sure nobody breaks the rule,” he said. He said DCFS does have a licensing agent on the ground, but that these agents act in a more reactive capacity.
Skene said regulations shouldn’t be onerous, and he questioned whether even mandating at the state level a name tag/uniform policy similar to what NeuroRestorative adopted in 2017 would be appropriate. Skene said they base things on “expectations of competence.”
There is only so much regulations can do, he said.
“There really is not a foolproof system against human behavior,” Skene said. “There is an employer responsibility as well as a (licenser) responsibility.”
NeuroRestorative did not answer questions about whether it believed these types of regulatory changes should be implemented statewide and whether they would be beneficial to similar organizations.
On the state side, places like NeuroRestorative are also licensed by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which bases its regulations on state law. Melaney Arnold, a media representative for IDPH, said the statute that would regulate employee background checks for health care providers would be the Healthcare Worker Background Check Act, which, when compared with the federal guidelines used by DCFS, are less stringent.
“A health care employer or long-term care facility may conditionally employ an applicant for up to 3 months pending the results of a fingerprint-based criminal history record check requested by the Department of Public Health,” the act reads.
Skene said it is in an employer’s best interest to go above and beyond so they do not get sued and have their license “dinged.”
Skene also said simply eliminating the grace period and conditional employee status would have its drawbacks as well, because of “the characteristics of the workforce.”
“Often at the kinds of pay levels many of these institutions pay, many of the people can’t be out of work for weeks,” Skene said.
NeuroRestorative did not answer questions about whether the elimination of such a background check would potentially put a burden on either the facility or its workers.
While it did not indicate pay levels, a position similar to that in which Timmons worked was advertised on the NeuroRestorative website; it required a high school diploma or GED and required passage of a background check, drug test and a clean driving record.
Rosslind Rice, communications coordinator for Southern Illinois Healthcare, said background checks for applicants hoping to work with children there take about two to four days to complete.
“According to the Healthcare Workers Background Check Act, employees may work provisionally for up to 90 days pending the return of the results. Although the act allows 90 days, SIH only allows 30 days,” Rice said in a written statement. She said SIH uses third-party background checking company FIRM Systems.
Skene also said incidents similar to the one at NeuroRestorative don’t get reported very often. He could count only a handful of similar complaints system-wide in the last few years.
In a civil lawsuit filed against Timmons and NeuroRestorative by the alleged victim in 2017, attorney Courtney Hughes accuses NeuroRestorative on several counts that amount to forms of negligence.
However, on Dec. 21, Hughes confirmed that the case had settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. He declined further comment.
What can be done?
Illinois Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Oak Lawn, is vice chair of the state’s Health Care Licenses Committee and she said that a review could be needed of how places like NeuroRestorative perform these types of background checks, and what is possibly taking so long to get them done. She said even the state law, which was passed in 1995, could need a review, too.
“If there is a weakness in the vetting process for people who work with the most vulnerable of our citizens, we should definitely be taking a look at how we can improve it,” Burke said.
She said it was out of her hands as far as the committee was concerned, though. She said Democratic Rep. Cynthia Soto, of Chicago, is chair of the committee and would need to take up that banner.
After several phone calls and an email, Soto could not be reached for comment.
State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said she understands a desire to keep regulations to a sensible minimum, but said this particular instance may be special.
“I like for the government to be hands-off as much as it can,” Bryant said. “But on the other hand, we are not talking about whether or not we need to change some trucking regulations. We are talking about people who work with the most vulnerable citizens we have. In that case, I think we always have to err on the side of extra caution rather than less caution.”
She said while she would tend to agree with Skene about the inability to regulate against human error, she said she’s not convinced that’s what this was.
Bryant said she knows employers are between a rock and a hard place in Southern Illinois. She said filling a spot, having bodies in a position, is vital, but getting the right ones is hard, especially in low-paying positions.
“I get the part that it’s difficult to find employees, but we have a definite responsibility to maintain the safety and security of the most vulnerable in our society,” she said.
Bryant said it’s just human nature to take as much time as is given to complete a task, and that fits with what is happening with these background checks. She used the state statute as an example.
“If we give people three months they will often take three months,” she said.
She said she believed this time could be “tightened up” and said when the current state legislation was written, three months was likely the best that could be done, but the world works at a much faster place now.
“I know the technology has to be out there to make this happen faster,” she said.
Bryant also sits on the Health Care Licenses Committee and said she would “absolutely” bring it up to colleagues on committee.