Mother says beating suspect released too soon from VA hospital



ATLANTA - The family of a man accused of brutally beating and robbing an elderly man says he never should have been released from the veteran’s hospital in Atlanta.

Channel 2 Action News broke the story Thursday about a report on the Atlanta VA Medical Center that cited mismanagement of inpatient mental healthcare.

Sy Smith was arrested this week and charged with attacking a Korean War veteran in Douglas County and stealing his car.

His mother, who asked not to be identified, said her son needed help after leaving the military that he just did not get at Atlanta VA Medical Center.

“When he was in Iraq, it changed him,” she said.

Smith’s mother said her son was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and sought treatment at the Atlanta VA Medical Center after a suicide attempt.

“He was there for 10 days and they let him out, but he still wasn’t right,” the mother said.

The latest claim comes on the heels of a scathing report on the center in Decatur that found mental health services failed to monitor patients adequately and did not sufficiently address patient care and safety.

“When they let him out, they gave him a bag full of drugs and said, ‘Here, take these.’ Which he didn’t do properly,” Smith’s mother said.

Smith’s allged victim, 79-year-old Jack Wilson, is still bruised from the brutal attack. Police said Smith attacked Wilson at his own mailbox and beat him before stealing Wilson’s car.

Wilson also uses the VA medical center. He said the center needs improvement, but he is not ready to excuse Smith’s actions.

“I’ve been hit in the head. I lost part of my brain. I’m not doing this. I’m not attacking people,” Wilson said.

Smith’s mother insists that more could have been done to help.

“I think they should have kept him a little longer, until he was a little more stable,” Smith’s mother said.

Mental health advocates reluctant to refer patients to Atlanta VA Medical Center

Local mental health advocates told investigative reporter Aaron Diamant they can no longer trust the quality of care mental health patients get at the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

"It's absolutely appalling," said Mental Health America of Georgia Executive Director Sarah Schwartz on Friday.

The scathing report blamed negligence for at least three patient deaths.

"They don't have a lot of other options and that's a real problem,” Schwartz said. “Access to mental health care for veterans is very difficult and when they rely on the VA, and the VA doesn't come through, there's very few options left."

Schwartz said she’s now reluctant to refer clients there.

"When we give out referrals, we want to feel confident in the quality of care that the person will get, and I don't feel as confident in that care now," Schwartz said.

In the audit, investigators found, “Policies did not address patient safety care," and, "The facility did not have adequate policies or practices for contraband…or clinical changes in a patient's condition."

In one case, a patient in his 20s with a history of drug addiction overdosed on opiates and died.  Auditors also found two patients with known suicidal tendencies weren't monitored closely enough and killed themselves.

In a written statement, the center's chief of staff, Dr. David Bower, agreed with inspectors’ findings. 

"We have already taken very aggressive corrective actions to address each finding,” Bower wrote. “We want to express our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the three veterans cited in the reports who died."

So far, medical center leaders have refused Channel 2 Action News’ repeated requests for an on camera interview.

We do know the Atlanta VA Medical Center is run by an acting director.

While her permanent replacement was named months ago, at least two announced start dates have come and gone.

Late Friday afternoon, a VA spokesman in Washington, DC, told Diamant today there is now no exact start date for the new director, but he wouldn't explain the delay.

Channel 2 Action News

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