Thursday, November 17, 2011

Doctor at Austin State Hospital accused of child sex abuse - Texas

By Andrea Ball and Eric Dexheimer

The state Department of Family and Protective Services has accused a longtime staff child psychiatrist for the Austin State Hospital of sexually abusing at least one child in his care, and investigators from an independent oversight agency have opened a wider inquiry into accusations from at least eight possible victims dating back a decade.

The state agency alerted hospital officials three weeks ago that it had confirmed that Dr. Charles Fischer had been involved in two separate instances of sexual abuse, said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the agency. The agency terms an incident "confirmed" if its investigation shows the allegation is supported by a preponderance of the evidence.

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Department of State Health Services, which runs the Austin hospital, said Fischer, 59, was fired effective Monday.

The state hospital is a residential facility for people with mental illness. The child and adolescent unit where Fischer worked houses youths up to the age of 18. The Adult Protective Services division of the Department of Family and Protective Services is required by law to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect in state hospitals.

Crimmins said police have been notified of the agency's findings; however, an Austin police spokeswoman said Fischer has not been charged with any crimes.

Contacted at his West Lake Hills home, Fischer declined to comment. "You'll have to ask the hospital about that," he said.

The Texas Medical Board, which licenses physicians, shows Fischer has an unblemished disciplinary record. Details of the case against Fischer were still unclear late Wednesday. Williams did not say when the two confirmed incidents occurred, how they were confirmed, if the youth was a boy or a girl, or whether he or she was still a hospital resident.

But, she said, Fischer, who earned $185,000 a year from the state, had been accused of sexually abusing patients in the past.

"There were previous allegations against Dr. Fischer over the years," she said. "Each was reported and investigated outside the agency, but the allegations were never confirmed."

Crimmins said the Department of Family and Protective Services investigated each of the abuse allegations as they became known.

"We have received several reports alleging sexual abuse by Dr. Charles Fischer dating back several years. In each instance in which sexual abuse by Dr. Fischer was alleged, law enforcement was notified at the time of the initial report, and again when a finding was made," he wrote in an email response to questions.

"Each case was investigated thoroughly, but none were confirmed until October, when two separate allegations of sexual abuse against Dr. Fischer were confirmed, and the Department of State Health Services was notified."

A spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services Commission said the agency's internal investigative arm was looking into the abuse allegations. Stephanie Goodman declined to say whether the Office of Inspector General was investigating the incidents of alleged abuse or the agency's response to them.

And on Wednesday, Disability Rights Texas — a nonprofit organization officially designated by the federal government to protect the rights of the state's disabled — said it had launched an inquiry into cases involving eight potential victims in incidents involving Fischer dating back to 2001. Because of its federal affiliation, the organization has access to records at state hospitals and can bring lawsuits against the state on behalf of people with disabilities.

Beth Mitchell, an attorney for the organization, said she did not yet know if the eight cases it had been notified of included the two abuse incidents confirmed by the Department of Family and Protective Services.

"We are all heartbroken over these allegations," Williams said. "These kids come to us to heal, and the situation is very sad and extremely troubling for everyone involved."

State records show Fischer received his medical license in 1978 from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. He completed a residency in general psychiatry and further specialized training in child psychiatry, the records show.

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