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Virginia AG punts investigation of child abuse allegations

This aerial image taken with a drone shows Cumberland Hospital for Children and Adolescents on Tuesday Sept. 20, 2022, in Richmond, Va. The office of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares handed off its jurisdiction in a long-running investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and other abuses at a hospital. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Earlier this year, the office of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares handed off its jurisdiction in a long-running investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and other abuses at a hospital that serves vulnerable children.

The move leaves any further charging decisions up to a local prosecutor with a tiny staff. Miyares' office offered a procedural explanation for the change, but the decision surprised some legal observers, given that the attorney general ran last year with a tough-on-crime message and has sought to expand the role of his office in criminal prosecutions.

“My concern is that when the going got tough, they didn’t want to keep going," said Kevin Biniazan, an attorney representing approximately 50 ex-patients who are plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Cumberland Hospital for Children and Adolescents, related corporate entities and the facility’s former longtime medical director, Dr. Daniel Davidow.

The facility, located in a bucolic setting in New Kent County, about half an hour east of the state capital, treats children and young adults with complex medical needs, including chronic illnesses, brain injuries and neurobehavioral disorders.

The lawsuits say the hospital operated without proper licensing and was “devoid of fundamental sanitation or humanity," allegations the facility denies. And more than three dozen of the female plaintiffs allege Davidow, who has not been charged with any crime, sexually abused them during physical exams. In court documents and through an attorney, Davidow strongly denies the allegations.

The lawsuits and other concerns from patients' parents about the hospital, which have been highlighted by persistent reporting from Richmond TV station WTVR, have raised alarms at the highest levels of state government over at least two gubernatorial administrations. Virginia State Police began investigating staff at the hospital in October 2017 and that work is ongoing, spokesperson Corinne Geller said. The full scope and targets of the probe have not been made public.

Under the direction of the previous attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, the office prosecuted two hospital staffers.

One, a 72-year-old psychotherapist, was charged with sexually abusing a patient and died by suicide the same day he was due in court for a plea hearing. The other, a behavioral technician, was sentenced in December to a year in prison after pleading no contest to an allegation that she intentionally burned a disabled child with scalding water.

Biniazan said that over the course of the investigation, he has been in touch with different state police officials and AG’s office attorneys. After Miyares was sworn in Jan. 15, Biniazan was told a new assistant attorney general was taking over the case. But then his firm received a call in the spring saying the AG’s office was handing it off, he said.

A spokeswoman for Miyares said the Office of the Attorney General initially became involved because the former New Kent County commonwealth’s attorney had a personal conflict. T. Scott Renick, who took office in January 2020, has no such conflict, so jurisdiction was “rightfully returned,” the spokeswoman, Victoria LaCivita, said.

Renick, who has one deputy and one assistant prosecutor, said in an interview that he did not ask that jurisdiction be returned to him.

“The Attorney General’s Office just wasn’t proceeding at this time,” he said, referring questions about the reason why to Miyares' office.

Steven Benjamin, a prominent Richmond criminal defense attorney who serves as special counsel to the Virginia Senate Courts of Justice Committee, said LaCivita's explanation was not “persuasive.”

“The absence of a conflict two years into his term does not explain a withdrawal he did not request,” Benjamin, who reviewed reporting about the investigation and court documents at the request of the AP, wrote in an email.

Miyares, a former prosecutor and state lawmaker from Virginia Beach, defeated Herring in November after a campaign in which he criticized the two-term incumbent for what he called a “criminal-first, victim-last mindset.” During this year’s legislative session, his office pushed unsuccessfully for legislation that would have expanded the currently limited set of crimes the attorney general can prosecute absent special authorization, specifically seeking the ability to handle sex assaults against children. He recently said he would try again during the next legislative session.

His office chose to withhold documents related to the Cumberland decision that the AP sought under Virginia’s open records law.

The Cumberland hospital is a subsidiary of publicly traded, Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services Inc., which operates behavioral health and other health care facilities across the country and was also named as a defendant in Biniazan’s clients’ lawsuit.

Joseph Farchione, an attorney representing the hospital in the civil case, said no charges have been brought against the hospital and to his knowledge, the hospital is not the subject of any criminal investigation. Farchione also noted that Davidow was an independent contractor.

“The employees of Cumberland Hospital are committed to the founding vision of providing high quality integrated care to children and adolescents,” he wrote in an email.

In response to reporting about the hospital and investigation, spokespeople for GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin and previous Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam have registered their concerns. And the chief clinical officer for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services personally filed a complaint with the state agency that licenses health professionals in 2020 after she said various law enforcement, health and social service agencies met to discuss the abuse allegations made against Davidow. Dr. Alexis Aplasca’s complaint addressed not only the allegations but her concerns stemming from a review of patient records that Davidow, a physician with a currently active license, was treating children and adolescents with multiple antipsychotic drugs without adequate oversight by a psychiatrist.

In three lawsuits filed by Biniazan, 39 former female patients allege that Davidow sexually abused them during exams. Many of the women, who are suing using pseudonyms, say Davidow claimed he needed to check their femoral pulse and then put his hand under their clothing and intentionally touched their vaginas, sometimes penetrating them with his fingers. Most of the alleged abuse took place during exams performed by Davidow shortly after the patients were admitted to the hospital, according to the lawsuits.

Several male plaintiffs allege other hospital employees physically battered and abused them, including one patient who said staff members repeatedly picked him up out of his wheelchair and threw him into the shower, knowing that he was not able to physically brace himself to avoid injury.

The lawsuits are in the process of being consolidated so the allegations can be heard during a single trial.

Attorneys for Davidow declined to answer questions from AP but said in a statement that Davidow “strongly denies" the plaintiffs' allegations.

“He cares deeply for the wellbeing of the patients under his care, has cooperated fully and openly with authorities when complaints have been investigated, and remains resolute that he will be vindicated in a court of law,” the statement said.

As for the criminal investigation, Renick, the New Kent prosecutor, said his office had met with a state police investigator and was waiting on a final report.

“I think what’s in the best interest of my clients and in the best interest of the public," Biniazan said, “is that whoever is going to be pursuing a criminal investigation, in light of the allegations that we’re talking about, they need to be completely committed to performing that function.”

Sarah Rankin And Denise Lavoie, The Associated Press

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