Crime

They say their mentally ill son was left alone in jail for days before dying. His family is suing the caregivers

The parents of Marc Moreno have filed a federal lawsuit against the healthcare providers who failed to get help as he deteriorated in the Benton County jail. The teen was found dead in his cell in March 2016, eight days after he was booked in on two misdemeanor warrants.
The parents of Marc Moreno have filed a federal lawsuit against the healthcare providers who failed to get help as he deteriorated in the Benton County jail. The teen was found dead in his cell in March 2016, eight days after he was booked in on two misdemeanor warrants. Benton County Sheriff's Office

Five months after Benton County paid out $1.2 million for the death of a mentally ill teenager while in custody, his parents are going after the jail’s contracted mental health and medical staff for allowing him to deteriorate and go untreated for over a week.

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court stating it was the responsibility of the mental health social worker, nursing supervisor, Lourdes Health and two healthcare companies to provide constitutionally adequate care to Benton County jail inmates and detainees.

Yet in March 2016, Marc A. Moreno was subjected to inhumane conditions in a padded cell and, as a result, “suffered extreme physical pain, severe mental and emotional anguish, and the loss of his life,” according to the 26-page complaint.

Moreno, 18, died in his jail cell eight days after he was booked.

County Coroner John Hansens ruled that Moreno died from an irregular heartbeat and dehydration as a result of synthetic cannabis in his system.

The lawsuit blames his “profound dehydration” on prolonged fluid deprivation while confined, saying staff knew he wasn’t eating or drinking but did nothing about it. He lost almost 40 pounds over the week, the complaint states.

The suit was filed Oct. 30 in U.S. District Court on behalf of Moreno’s father, Miguel Angel Moreno of Pasco, and mother Alicia Magaña Mendez of Mexico.

It does not give a dollar amount, but seeks to both compensate the parents for “the loss of their son’s society and companionship” and to punish the defendants.

In addition to Lourdes Counseling Center, the defendants are: Anita Vallee, a mental health social worker; Ashley Castaneda, a registered nurse; Correctional Healthcare Companies based in Colorado; and Correct Care Solutions based in Tennessee.

The two companies merged in July 2014 while Correctional Healthcare Companies was under a three-year contract with Benton County to hire, train and supervise nurses at the jail, including Castaneda.

Vallee worked for Lourdes, which had a contract through Greater Columbia Behavioral Health to provide mental healthcare services at the jail, according to the complaint.

In May, Marc Moreno’s family agreed to end their wrongful death lawsuit against Benton County and accept a settlement offer for $1.2 million. The money was paid out of the county risk pool.

Family lawyer George Trejo at the time said they found it gratifying for the county to step up and resolve the case early. But he added that the family was still considering suing Lourdes Health and the jail’s healthcare provider for being directly responsible for Moreno’s needs.

Moreno’s family said he sought help at the Benton-Franklin Crisis Response Unit in Kennewick on March 3, 2016.

A crisis counselor had noted that Moreno was “not oriented to time or place and was unable to understand basic questions,” in addition to talking to angels and hitting himself in the face, the complaint states.

Police were called to take Moreno to a Tri-City hospital, but he ended up arrested on misdemeanor warrants for driving with a suspended license and failing to transfer a car title within 45 days of a purchase. He was booked into the county jail.

Then-Sheriff Steve Keane later acknowledged that Moreno should not have been taken to the jail in the first place.

Moreno, who was bipolar and schizophrenic, made suicidal statements during the booking process and was placed in a “safety cell.” The padded cell has no bed, toilet or sink, and its only window is a strip of glass in the cell door with a sliding cover.

Vallee tried to interview Moreno the following morning through the closed cell door, but he “demonstrated ‘bizarre and illogical behaviors’ and evidence of mania and psychosis.” The social worker did not try to treat his mental health symptoms or refer him to another professional, the complaint states.

Over the next week, Moreno often was found lying naked on the floor, playing with his food and rolling around in his feces. He did not talk with Vallee.

Jail staff reported that he was not eating or drinking. Vallee and Castaneda should have recognized that he was in the throes of a mental health crisis and intervened with immediate medical help, according to the suit.

On March 10, 2016 — the day before he died — Vallee noted that Moreno had his eyes closed and didn’t respond to her attempts to communicate.

She called the Crisis Response Unit to report he had extremely poor hygiene, was decompensating and was using his feces to make “symbols of angels.” Vallee failed to mention that Moreno had not ingested any food or fluids for at least four days and had not been seen by medical staff, the suit says.

Castaneda observed Moreno through the window in his door that afternoon, and noted he was naked, face down and singing. She did not take his vital signs, weigh him or get a urine sample, all in violation of her company’s policies, and she failed to take steps to determine the severity of his dehydration, the suit says.

“Castaneda left Mr. Moreno alone in his cell, naked, detached from reality, suffering from thirst, and dying from the consequences of dehydration,” according to the complaint. “She did not return.”

Moreno was found dead the following day.

The lawsuit quotes Sheriff Jerry Hatcher, who’d been undersheriff when Moreno died, as recently making the public statement, “There were some significant problems with our contracted medical services.”

Vallee and Castaneda acted with deliberate indifference and reckless disregard for Moreno’s constitutional rights, according to the suit, and it was the responsibility of Lourdes and the two healthcare companies to properly train the jail staff and uphold their policies.

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer
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