MASON CITY - The head of Gerard Treatment Center of Iowa maintains that Gerard personnel did nothing inappropriate in their actions preceding the death of Tanner Wilson.
"Stupid things can happen - but it did not happen in the Tanner Wilson incident," said Jim D'Angelo, chief executive officer of the treatment center for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.
"We feel we know what happened quite clearly. We don't feel we were inappropriate in the method of restraint or the necessity to physically restrain Tanner," said D'Angelo.
Wilson, 11, son of Robert and Karen Wilson of Mason City, was a resident at Gerard when he died on Feb. 9, 2001, shortly after being restrained by Gerard employees. One of the employees, Lori Meacham, was charged with child endangerment, but the case was dismissed at the request of the Iowa attorney general's office, the prosecutor in the case. A civil suit brought by the Wilsons against Gerard, Nexus (the parent company of Gerard), Meacham and another employee, Jeremy Witt, was settled out of court.
Dr. Dale Andres, Cerro Gordo County medical examiner, ruled Wilson died of cardiopulmonary arrest.
"Tanner was physically held down. There is no evidence of suffocation. This occurred because of a unique situation with Tanner because of his physical condition at the time and the medications he was on," said D'Angelo.
"Gerard has been in operation for over 25 years and nothing like this has ever occurred. This wouldn't happen in another million uses of restraints," he said.
Gerard is an affiliate of Nexus, a Minneapolis-based company that has a network of facilities such as Gerard. D'Angelo is CEO of both Nexus and Gerard, but said that in this context, he was speaking solely as head of Gerard.
He said he did not want to give the impression that Gerard does not make mistakes. "We dropped the ball in the incident involving the 20-year-old employee who tied up the boy with a necktie and bathrobe belt. That, of course, should never have happened and the employee involved was fired.
"Up until that time, we did employ some people who were under the age of 21. The law allows that. But after that incident, we changed our policy even though we were in compliance because we can't have things like that.
"But we have not changed any of our policies as a result of Tanner Wilson's death, contrary to what the Wilsons' lawyer says. And no one was disciplined. The two employees involved found other employment but that was not a part of any discipline, as has been alleged," said D'Angelo.
Matt Novak of Cedar Rapids, attorney for the Wilsons, told The Globe Gazette on Monday that as part of the settlement, the Wilsons wanted assurances that what happened to Tanner would never happen again - and that the departure of the two employees and some policy changes had taken place.
"I think their lawyer is trying to win a case in the court of public opinion that he couldn't win in the courtroom," said D'Angelo.
But Novak said Thursday that Gerard documents verify that use of new forms to document physical holdings went into effect May 16, 2001, and that new federal regulations on use of physical restraints went into effect July 20, 2001. "Mr. D'Angelo told me under oath that he didn't even know what the policies were on Feb. 9 and that he didn't know what type of physical restraints were being used. He referred questions on that to the clinical director."
With respect to employee discipline, Novak said, "They are no longer there. That was my concern."
D'Angelo was asked why Gerard chose to settle out of court if the case was thought to be winnable. He said, "The Wilsons' initial demands for money were extraordinarily high. The demands got lower and lower as the case began to unwind. As they got lower and lower, our insurance company told us to settle. We had already paid legal fees in excess of $100,000 and that was just going to increase. That is money that could have been spent on the needs of children.
"We wanted this to go to trial. We wanted all of the facts to be put on the table in a public forum. But our insurance company told us to settle and we settled," he said.
Novak said, "No settlement demand was even made until 2-3 weeks before the settlement was reached. And one of the terms of the settlement was that neither side discuss it."
D'Angelo said, "We offer our condolences to the Wilson family. We are tremendously sorry that it happened. They have lost a child and nothing can make up for that."
He said Gerard's reputation has been tarnished because of all of the adverse publicity for nearly two years. But he said it is still held in high regard.
"Even in the worst of days, we have always had a waiting list. That's because placement agencies know the job we do. We have certainly been wounded but we still have support for how we deal with the most difficult children in Iowa.
"This has reinforced some things in our mind. Life is precious. Even with the best of training and best of intentions, bad things can happen. Our staff has been through a lot. They are truly committed to kids and I am tremendously proud of them for how they have worked through this."
Looking to the future, D'Angelo said Gerard needs to connect better with the people of Mason City. "We have not been as much a part of the Mason City community as we need to be," he said. "We have been in terms of physical structure, but we haven't brought the community on board to help bring the campus closer to the life of the community."
Gerard, which has operations in both Iowa and Minnesota, has 55 employees at its Mason City site.
Reach John Skipper at 421-0537 or firstname.lastname@example.org.