They say they went willingly to Sundance Hospital in Arlington seeking help.
But once inside the hospital, they say, they were kept against their will.
Kayela Salinas, who has bipolar disorder, says she had agreed to be hospitalized four years ago after calling Burleson police in the midst of a panic attack .
“I was told it was just going to be a 48-hour calm-down sort of thing,” said Salinas, 30.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Leslie Jasperson, who also has bipolar disorder, said she was upset and not reacting well to her medication in 2012 when her psychologist recommended she check herself into Sundance.
Taken to the hospital by her father, Jasperson, then 52, planned to stay 72 hours.
Salinas says her 48-hour stay stretched into nine days. Jasperson says she was held 18 days.
“I was in jail basically,” Jasperson said. “That’s why I’m afraid if something happens to go anywhere else because I’m afraid they’re going to keep me in there. I was lucky to have my father to help me. What if I don’t have anybody?”
Last week, a Tarrant County grand jury indicted Sundance Behavorial Healthcare System on nine criminal counts. The company is accused of violating the mental health code by illegally holding four patients at its Arlington’s hospital.
The company says the charges are unfounded and has accused the District Attorney’s Office of overstepping its bounds.
Since the announcement of the indictment, several people — including Salinas and Jasperson — have reached out to the Star-Telegram and local authorities with similar complaints.
“We are learning of many more patients who are coming forward,” said Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office.
Sundance’s attorneys declined to comment further this week.
Scott Faciane has served as an attorney ad litem for 18 years, representing patients in thousands of cases involving proposed mental health commitments. He said problems with Sundance’s commitments and filings began to surface about eight years ago.
“In my opinion, did they hold people longer than they should have and wait until the 11th hour to actually let them go? Yes,” Faciane said. “Unfortunately, I do think it was for the insurance benefits.”
Infringed upon rights
According to the indictment, Sundance is accused of holding two patients longer than the statutory maximum of 48 hours. To detain a patient longer on an involuntary basis requires a court order of protective custody.
The other two patients were voluntary patients who, despite repeatedly expressing their desire to leave, were not allowed to be released, the indictments allege.
Faciane said Sundance has had a history of filing for orders of protective custody — also known as mental health warrants — for patients who had come voluntarily to the hospital.
Though such orders are intended for patients who pose a threat to themselves or others, Faciane said he believes Sundance had a history of filing such orders “when it wasn’t warranted.”
“These facilities and providers are put in a very difficult position when someone presents voluntarily,” he said. “If they release them relatively quickly without filing, and something, God forbid, does happen on the back side after they’re discharged, then there’s a certain level of liability that could be associated with that. I do understand the physician and facility’s hesitation in releasing people too early.”
But at the same time, Faciane states, these patients “have certain rights that are protected under the law.”
“I think those rights have been infringed upon and infringed upon quite often,” he said.
Once an application for a court order for protective custody is filed, the court must appoint an attorney for the patient, and the case is placed on the court’s mental health docket.
“Depending on when you came in, you could stay theoretically for 10 days without access to a having a court hearing,” Faciane said.
When the patient or family members would inquire how long a patient would be held, Faciane said, the stock answer from Sundance or the treatment team was often seven to 10 days — the same amount of time typically covered by insurance companies for mental health treatment.
Faciane said he would meet with patients and explain their rights.
“On the Sundance cases, we would set probably 90 percent of them for trial,” Faciane said. “Almost every time, they would be discharged on the eve of trial.”
“I tried to escape”
Jasperson said when her father dropped her off at Sundance, she knew right away it wasn’t the place for her.
“I wanted to leave immediately because they locked the door and they wouldn’t let me talk to my father,” Jasperson said of her 2012 hospitalization. “In fact, I tried to escape. I didn’t feel right, and they wouldn’t let me talk to my father who was outside. It’s not what I expected.”
She said she later reached out to Faciane for help at the suggestion of another person.
“After that, the psychiatrist said, ‘You shouldn’t have done that. We would have gone ahead and let you out,’ ” Jasperson said.
Instead, she says, Sundance kept her longer. She said she was made to once again start the steps of a 10-day treatment program that she had already completed.
“I never said I was going to commit suicide. The only thing I said was I want to get out of here,” Jasperson said. “Then I started to go through all the motions, did what they wanted me to do, said what they wanted me to say, because I wanted out.”
She said that on the day before her civil commitment hearing was to be held, “they decided to release me.”
Because she did not have insurance, Jasperson said her father was left to foot the bill.
“I know they wanted $18,000,” she said, adding she couldn’t recall how much her father actually ended up paying Sundance.
“Money by any means necessary”
Salinas was on Medicaid at the time of her hospitalization. She said another patient told her the hospital often kept Medicaid patients longer so they could bill more.
“She had told me because Medicaid allowed so many days for mental health rehabilitation, that they’re not going to let you out before they’re done with your billing time,” Salinas said.
Salinas said the ordeal was especially hard for her because she had a young daughter at home.
Because of the way the situation escalated out of her control, Salinas said she would never seek such help again. “That was frightening to me — to be so out of control and not being able to leave when you want to leave,” she said.
Stephen Geist said that when he took his 8-year-old daughter to the Arlington hospital in May after an incident at school, he thought it was just so she could talk to someone.
But as Geist, who has a learning disability, filled out a more than 20-page packet, he said he became concerned when he noticed some of the documents seemed to be referencing consent for a stay.
“The social worker that was talking to us at the time, I told her, ‘I thought we were coming in to just talk with someone today? This is talking about her staying. That’s not what I want,’ ” Geist said. “The social worker basically lied to me. She said all these papers mean is she had come in here, she’s been seen by us, and that’s all.”
But Geist said after handing over the packet, a Sundance administrator came in and said the girl would have to stay as the documents couldn’t be unsigned.
“I told them if the social worker had not lied to my face, I would have torn this up and eaten up every little scrap of it before I ever let my daughter stay here,” he said.
He said his daughter had to spend the night.
“I basically had to tell her, ‘I messed up. I didn’t understand what was going on here,’ ” Geist said. “She said, ‘It’s OK, Daddy. I’ll get through it.’ She was definitely scared. It was that moment of, ‘I can’t believe I just let my daughter down.’ I spent that entire night crying.”
He said he was able to get his daughter released the next day but that experience left her traumatized.
“I think they’re there to make money by any means necessary,” Geist said.
Attorneys for Sundance have accused the District Attorney’s Office of overstepping its bounds by bringing criminal charges.
“At a basic level, we have people without medical degrees ordering licensed mental health professionals to violate their Hippocratic Oath to do no harm and then criminally prosecuting them for delay in a patient’s release, even when the delay was a result of medical professionals acting in the best interest of the patient and the community,” the law firm of Varghese Summersett said in a statement released last week.
In a motion seeking to quash the indictment, the attorneys allege the charges were pursued by the District Attorney’s Office to cripple the corporation and force the mental health hospital to buckle at the negotiating table and sell.
The motion alleges that the District Attorney’s Office refused to support or sponsor Sundance hospitalizations during its investigations, which meant that probate courts were unable to process applications for orders of protective custody.
Without those orders for protective custody, Sundance was legally prevented from providing overflow treatment for mentally ill people who were involuntarily committed, curtailing a significant part of the hospital’s business, according to Sundance attorneys
Jordan, the spokeswoman for the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office., said it was what was uncovered in the investigation that necessitated the change.
“When we learned the extent of the malfeasance at Sundance, we knew we could no longer present orders of protective custody to the probate courts on their behalf,” Jordan said. “However, the law clearly allows Sundance and other similarly licensed facilities to submit orders of protective custody to the probate courts on their own behalf, without the Criminal District Attorney’s Office.”
The District Attorney’s Office is asking those wanting to report alleged mistreatment by Sundance to contact the office at 817-884-1661.