Evergreen Hospital admits it should have removed a nurse from its staff more than nine months before she was sentenced on charges that she tied up a severely disabled man in her care.
Robin N. Johnson was hired as a nurse at Evergreen in January 2014, around the same time the Seattle Police Department launched an investigation into the treatment of a patient she cared for under her former employer.
Johnson, 36, was accused of abusing 23-year-old Matthew Schwed over a period of more than a year and a half, starting in 2012. It was alleged that Johnson routinely bound Schwed – a dependent adult who is unable to speak, move, or eat without assistance – to a chair, locked him in a small bathroom, or left him outside alone while she spent time with her own children.
Evergreen was first made aware of the investigation into Johnson in March 2014, but allowed her to continue caring for mothers and infants until late last month.
Bob Sampson, vice president of human resources for EvergreenHealth, said the hospital received a phone call from the Washington State Department of Health in March 2014. The state informed the hospital that a complaint had been filed against Johnson’s license.
“Based on that information, we then met with Robin to find out from her perspective what was going on, because that was the first time we had heard of anything,” Sampson told KIRO Radio.
Sampson said Johnson told the hospital that she was the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her estranged husband, and he had forced her to tie Schwed up.
“When we interviewed Robin, her claim was that (the abuse) happened, but it was the result of a threat to her and her children,” Sampson said. “So we saw this as an issue of domestic violence.”
Sampson said his staff monitored the status of Johnson’s nursing license for the next two months, but it remained in good standing. The hospital made no further efforts to look into the allegations, beyond Johnson’s own version of events, and she was allowed to continue caring for women and children.
Meanwhile, the criminal investigation into Johnson’s conduct continued behind the scenes.
In May 2014, Johnson was arrested and charged with felony unlawful imprisonment for her treatment of Schwed. As a condition of her release, she was ordered not have any contact with vulnerable patients unless “supervised by a person with knowledge” of the charge. She eventually entered into a deal with prosecutors, pleading to a lesser charge of misdemeanor attempted unlawful imprisonment.
The hospital remained unaware that Johnson had confessed to the abuse until January 27, 2015, just two days before she was sentenced in King County Superior Court. Johnson had asked the hospital for a letter of reference to give to the judge, which prompted staff to look into the case further.
After learning the “full extent” of the allegations from reading court documents, the hospital immediately placed Johnson on paid administrative leave, and then fired her two days later, on January 29.
“Once we got the full scope of the charges, we felt that we could not keep her on as an employee once we got all the details,” said Sampson, who claimed the hospital was not told in March that Johnson was accused of tying Schwed up more than once.
“We did not know about multiple incidents,” he said.
“Had we had all that detail back in March, then we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Had we known then what we know now, there would have been different actions taken.”
Sampson noted that Johnson received no complaints during her time at Evergreen and that, as a new hire, she was under the supervision of other nurses.
Mary and Doug Schwed, Matthew Schwed’s parents, have expressed outrage over the fact that Johnson continued to work with vulnerable patients after what she did to their son.
“We, as a community, have really all suffered an injustice,” Mary said of the case. “Because these agencies are set up to protect all of us. Not just our son.”
Earlier this month, KIRO Radio revealed that prosecutors also made mistakes in their handling of the Schwed case.
It was discovered that King County prosecutors were handed photos of Schwed tied up in December of 2013, but did not believe the photos were legitimate and failed to take action to stop the abuse.
Last week, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg sent the Schwed family a letter of apology that read, in part, “I sincerely apologize to you and to Matthew for the errors by my office and I realize that our mistakes have been acutely felt by everyone in your family, including Matthew.”
Satterberg said his office would use the case as a learning experience.
EvergreenHealth said it, too, has learned lessons from the case.
Sampson said the hospital is working to reevaluate how it handles and tracks employees accused of misconduct.
Kay Taylor, vice president of communications and patient experience for EvergreenHealth, said hospital staff have discussed the situation “extensively” and will look into performing routine background checks and monthly checks of nursing licenses.