25 Investigates

State sweeping shuttered buildings for medical records after questions from FOX Undercover

FOX UNDERCOVER (MyFoxBoston.com) -- State officials are ordering a sweep of abandoned buildings in their care after FOX Undercover raised questions about private medical records of disabled patients and students found inside shuttered institutions.

The order today from Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz is a reversal from the state's earlier insistence that all private medical records were removed when patients were moved out of the buildings.

The records were discovered by urban explorers, people who break into boarded up institutions and often post videos and photographs of their exploits online.

FOX Undercover began investigating after hearing from the parent of a teenager who broke into the former Paul A. Dever State School, an institution in Taunton that housed developmentally disabled students until it closed in 2002.

The teen said he found hundreds of patient records inside one of the buildings, including an admission card he gave to FOX Undercover that showed a student's name, date of birth, home address and parents' names. The student was nine years old when admitted in 1965.

The patient lived most of his life in the Dever School but, along with his parents, has since died. His brother declined to be interviewed but said he was "concerned" that the record was left behind.

The school was run by the state agency now called the Department of Developmental Services, or DDS. A spokesman for DDS at first insisted there were no files in its abandoned buildings. But hours later, officials visited Dever and the state conceded records were still there.

"Why did you miss the admission cards?" Beaudet asked Rick O'Meara, a DDS regional director.

"I don't know how we missed it, but there were 24 buildings and the buildings are in quite a bit of disarray," O'Meara replied.

"First the office says no records still in there. Now you're saying there are records. Why the change?" Beaudet asked him.

"Well that was our belief," O'Meara replied. "We really spent a lot of time of effort and resources to go through all those buildings for these records."

"But it seems like you didn't do enough?" Beaudet asked.

"Well apparently not," O'Meara replied.

FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet interviewed an urban explorer who said he has found hundreds of private records in various state institutions, records he says "definitely" should have been moved.

"I have found plenty of information, personal information, medical records," said the urban explorer, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. "The first time I came across it, it was kind of a shocker… I would have thought they would have at least been moved to an active facility, some secure facility."

The urban explorer provided pictures of files full of records at several former state-run mental hospitals. But an official at the Department of Mental Health suggested no records were left behind.

"The department does I think a tremendous job in securing medical records, patient records when we close buildings," said Clifford Robinson, deputy commissioner at the Department of Mental Health.

While urban explorers tout their work online, Robinson criticized the practice as criminal trespassing.

"They're trespassing on state property. They're stealing things or using things that don't belong to them," he said.

Robinson has been with the department for nearly 30 years, and despite evidence to the contrary, insists the state has not left medical records in the buildings.

"I have been in the Department of Mental Health when we closed Metropolitan State Hospital (in Waltham), Danvers State Hospital, Medfield State Hospital, Westborough State Hospital… and it has not been an issue," he said.

But pictures of records in Metropolitan, Danvers and Westborough state hospitals were provided to us and are readily available online. Some of the hospitals, including Danvers, have since been torn down or renovated, but others remain abandoned.

"It seems like the state should be doing more if these people are able to get access to this stuff," Beaudet asked Robinson.

"I can only emphasize the things that we do to secure (records)," he replied.

"But it doesn't seem like it's enough if these people get these records?" Beaudet asked. "Bottom line, people are breaking in. It is a hobby for these urban explorers, as they call themselves. So why not just get everything out of there?"

"Well it may be a hobby for the urban explorers but in our view it's a crime they're committing," Robinson replied.

"But why leave any records in there at all?" Beaudet asked again.

"Like I said, we do everything in our power to ensure that medical records, client records are not in places where people can get them," Robinson replied.

But his counterpart at the agency that cares for the developmentally disabled, in an interview the next day, admitted there was cause to be worried.

"Are you concerned that personal information got into the wrong hands?" Beaudet asked O'Meara.

"Oh absolutely," O'Meara replied.