'Incredible' KIDS case took over lawyer's life

Date: 2000-04-12

Sunday, April 9, 2000

By LESLIE BRODY Staff Writer

Rebecca Ehrlich's malpractice suit against KIDS of North Jersey was settled in December, just 11 days before it was scheduled for trial in Superior Court in Hudson County.

The $4.5 million settlement came after Ehrlich's lawyer, Philip Elberg, spent five years wrangling to get her medical records from KIDS and deposing witnesses to unravel what really happened there.

"This case took over my life," said Elberg, who is based in Newark. "I got sucked in because the kids' stories are so incredible."

Ehrlich's suit against KIDS' director, Miller Newton, also named as defendants four Bergen County psychiatrists who worked there part time: Zisalo Wancier in Closter, Raymond Edelman in Teaneck, and two others who settled on condition that they not be named. One has died, and the other is no longer practicing medicine.

In settling the case, the defendants did not admit any guilt. Elberg said their malpractice insurance carriers paid $2 million on behalf of Newton, $1 million for Edelman, and $500,000 for Wancier. The other two psychiatrists' insurance paid the remaining $1 million.

Elberg said the presence of the psychiatrists gave Newton credibility, but that the doctors never evaluated her properly or treated Ehrlich during her six years at KIDS.

According to Ehrlich's suit, Newton admitted under oath that "during the first years she was his patient, she was not examined by anyone with any license at all in the treatment of psychiatric or mental disorders."

Ehrlich's family says she never had a substance abuse problem, but she was extremely obstinate and sometimes violent. She began to show signs of trouble at age 7 and went to several therapists before landing at KIDS, where Newton labeled her as suffering from "compulsive behavior disorder." After she left, a New York psychologist diagnosed her as having bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depressive illness.

In court papers, Newton's lawyer argued that there was no proof that KIDS aggravated Ehrlich's condition. He said her parents could have removed her at any time, that they were aware of the program's use of restraints, and that they did not object.

According to data Elberg culled from KIDS records, Ehrlich was held in restraints 138 times, but her parents were notified only four times.

The psychiatrists have their own defenses.

Edelman's court papers say that the Ehrlichs didn't ask him to evaluate their daughter. Since he worked at KIDS only eight hours a week, he depended on families and staff to alert him to problems.

Wancier said he became medical director in 1992 after Ehrlich was temporarily discharged. He signed one of her old charts even though he had not met her because of a paperwork backlog. He said that when Ehrlich returned to the program, nobody advised him. He worked there only four to six hours per week.

Wancier said in an interview that he "didn't feel comfortable" signing paperwork for patients he hadn't met but that he was new in the job and didn't want to say no to Newton. "That was my own foolishness," he said. "I failed, but the program was good for many kids."

Copyright � 2000 Bergen Record Corp.