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Leaving the Past Behind

Despite Being Named In Scathing Investigative Report In Delaware, Renata Henry Was Appointed To Position In Maryland State Government
Secretary Of Maryland Department Of Mental Health And Hygiene John Colmers

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 12/17/2008

In September, the Maryland state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced that it had hired a woman named Renata Henry to become deputy secretary for Behavioral Health and Disabilities. The announcement was made with little fanfare or public discussion, despite the fact that Henry, who previously worked for the state of Delaware, was one of the subjects of a scathing investigative report that led a Delaware legislator to call for her resignation.

Before taking the job in Maryland, Henry served as Delaware's director of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, which oversees Delaware's only state-run psychiatric center. The investigative report on the administration of the psych center, compiled by a state legislative committee and issued in January, followed a five-month legislative committee investigation comprised of public and confidential hearings. Those hearings were in response to "public outrage over alleged abuses, rapes, and mistreatment of patients and employees" at the Delaware Psychiatric Center, according to the report. Its findings prompted Delaware Rep. Richard Cathcart to call for Henry to step down, along with her boss, Delaware's Secretary of the Department Health and Social Services, Vincent Meconi, and the former director of the psychiatric center, Susan Robinson.

Secretary John Colmers of Maryland's Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, who vetted Henry, says he did not read the 20-page report. He says that after a nationwide search and discussions with Henry's peers, he made a sound pick. He says he based his decision in part on discussions with Henry and Meconi after considering two other candidates for the job, which was created by the Maryland General Assembly last session in a bill introduced by state Del. Peter Hammen (D-46th District).

Henry accepted the Maryland appointment in September and promptly resigned from her Delaware post. The Washington Times and Baltimore Examiner recently ran stories about the controversy, but Maryland officials have shown no interest in the report, which stated that the legislative committee had "no faith in the leadership of this department as it relates to the operation" of Delaware's psychiatric center. "We have not reviewed the report," a statement from the office of Gov. Martin O'Malley says, which referred all questions to Colmers.

Henry's appointment is at least the third since last year in which officials with spotty records in other states were hired to work for Maryland. Last November, Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore hired Christopher Perkins to run the Victor Cullen Academy for Youth Offenders; Perkins stepped down after City Paper broke news of patient-abuse allegations in Montana at a facility where he had worked ("The Colonel," Mobtown Beat, Dec. 12, 2007).

That same month, O'Malley hired Delores Briones as executive director of the Governor's Office for Children, a month after she was publicly censured by the El Paso County Board of Ethics, in Texas, where she served as a judge. Briones, who accepted a paid trip to sports facilities run by a company seeking to do business with El Paso, gave up her post this summer for personal reasons, according to the governor's office, which declined to comment.

In this latest hiring, Colmers does not appear to have any concerns. "I heard about the problems in Delaware and I had an in-depth conversation with Renata [Henry]," he says, noting that extensive problems existed before Henry was hired in Delaware. "I also spoke with Secretary Meconi about the controversy at the state facility in Delaware. I'm satisfied that this is an example of what can happen to people engaged in public service. I believe [Henry] has the requisite skills and qualifications to do the job."

When asked whether he read the report, Colmers says he hasn't. "I have not read the details of it," he replies. "I've read the news accounts."

When asked to comment for this story, Henry says she "had the opportunity to do significant change work in Delaware," pointing to her efforts to engage the private sector in public mental-health initiatives, and a sharp reduction of the size of the state psychiatric hospital. "I continued to enjoy the support of the governor and the secretary even as I accepted a position in Maryland," she says. "I cannot speak to the political aspirations behind the report, or about my own vetting process."

Maryland labor officials are now questioning the vetting process. "It's a pretty startling piece," AFSCME Maryland Director Patrick Moran says after reviewing the Delaware report. "There are lots of questions that need to be asked of Ms. Henry and of Secretary Colmers. If these allegations are true, we have to ask if this is the type of person we want to bring into Maryland."

Moran calls Colmers' decision to not read the report "surprising," and adds, "This was put together by a state committee, not some random disgruntled person. Then there's a call for her resignation from a state representative? You do a disservice to yourself not to look at it. Why is Maryland not taking a more critical look at it?"

David Boschert, executive director of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a non-exclusive bargaining unit, says transparency and accountability require a more serious review. "It sounds like she was forced to resign in Delaware and then Maryland picks her up," Boschert says, after reading the report. "It behooves Maryland to hire the best."

George Myers, president of the Maryland Professional Employee Council, which represents about 800 health care workers currently in negotiations with the state over a new contract, refrained from criticism, having not yet read the report. "I wouldn't even comment on the secretary's decision to not read the report until I read it myself," he says. "Even then, I wouldn't second-guess him."

Officials in Delaware say the report has led to no further action aside from implementing recommendations to improve patient care. Speaking on background, government sources in Delaware contend that public calls for resignation by Rep. Cathcart are the result of political friction between he and Meconi. So far, Henry is the only person to leave. Meconi says he still has the confidence of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

"I recommended Renata [Henry] to my counterpart in Maryland without hesitation," Meconi tells City Paper, acknowledging incidents at the psychiatric center such as a staff member having sex with a patient, an assault on a patient by an employee, and staff members sleeping on the job. "We fired them all. Renata and I took the heat for that. You shouldn't take these jobs if you can't handle people calling for your head. How you respond to these incidents is what counts."

Meconi rejects the notion that Henry was forced out. "That's not true," he says.

When asked to comment for this story, Delaware Gov. Minner sent the following statement:

Maryland District Court Judge George Lipman, from Baltimore City, says he has been impressed with Henry's performance thus far, which includes providing care for people with substance abuse and mental health issues as well as developmental disabilities. "I saw the articles, and I don't know about Delaware," Lipman says. He too has not read the report. "It's hard to tell after two months, but she's been active in her efforts to coordinate care for a complex population."

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