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It’s time for the Legislature to investigate the privatized DDS system

November 13, 2017 1 comment

Although seven employees of a corporate provider have been found to be at fault in a case in which a developmentally disabled client nearly died in a group home after aspirating on a piece of cake, we hope the Baker administration, the Legislature, and the media will not treat this as an isolated case.

We understand that the Department of Developmental Services has issued an “action plan” in response to this incident, and the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee is reviewing documents regarding the matter.

The Essex County District Attorney has opened an investigation that could result in the lodging of criminal charges against one or more of the employees of the Beverly-based provider, Bass River, Inc.

Both The Boston Globe and The Salem News have reported (here and here) on the DDS investigation of the case, which found that inadequate care by the staff of the group home caused the 29-year-old man, Yianni Baglaneas, to contract severe pneumonia nearly a week after he reportedly aspirated on the piece of birthday cake on April 9.

The DDS report also alleged that a high-level Bass River employee attempted to obstruct the investigation by instructing group home staff not to cooperate with the investigation and by removing records from the residence.

On April 15, Yianni was admitted to Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester in critical condition, six days after aspirating on the cake, and then spent 11 days on a ventilator and a week in the Intensive Care Unit at Mass. General Hospital.

Despite the relatively quick response to the DDS report by the legislative committee and others, what we haven’t yet seen is evidence that those in administrative and other positions of authority understand or are concerned that Yianni’s case is a symptom of a larger problem. He is the victim of a dysfunctional system overseen and managed by the DDS that is rife with abuse and neglect and a disregard for the rights of developmentally disabled individuals and their families. It is also a system that has been subject to extensive and ongoing privatization.

On October 25, we emailed the chairs of the Children and Families Committee, urging them to hold hearings on those larger issues. Two days later, the chief of staff to Representative Kay Khan, the committee’s House chair, emailed back saying the committee chairs were taking “immediate action” and were requesting documentation from “a number of agencies in order to obtain more details about this serious incident.”

The email from Khan’s chief of staff said that as soon as Khan’s office had reviewed the documents, the chairs would “make a determination about pursuing next steps regarding the DDS group home system.”

We are glad that the committee chairs recognize the seriousness of Yianni’s case and that they are considering next steps regarding the group home system. At the same time, the chief of staff’s email doesn’t make clear that the chairs are cognizant that there is a system-wide problem involved here.

The chief of staff’s email states only that the committee chairs have requested documentation about Yianni’s particular case. I’m not sure how they get from there to being able to make a determination about next steps regarding the entire group home system.

It would seem that the committee should request a much broader set of documentation than the documents relating to just this one case. In our October 25 email, we offered to assist the committee in gathering information on the problems affecting the system as a whole. To date, the committee has not sought any further information or help from us.

Meanwhile, the Globe’s editorial page rejected an op-ed we submitted in which we similarly tried to place Yianni’s case in the context of the wider group home issues. It’s concerning that the most powerful media outlet in the state does not seem to be interested that there is a wider problem that potentially affects thousands of people in the DDS system.

As a nonprofit advocacy organization for persons with developmental disabilities and their families, we have followed this situation for many years. The association of increased privatization with poor oversight and abuse and neglect is not coincidental. The inadequate care and conditions in Yianni’s group home that led to his near-fatal pneumonia are all too common in group homes around the country.

In 2013, after The New York Times and The Hartford Courant both ran separate investigative series on abuse and neglect in group homes in their respective states, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut called for a federal investigation of deaths and injuries in privatized care. Unfortunately, such a comprehensive federal investigation has still not been undertaken.

It is important to place the present-day state of affairs within the DDS system in an historical context. Until the early 1990s, the system was dominated in Massachusetts and other states by large, poorly run institutions. Those facilities were grossly unsanitary and were essentially warehouses of abuse and neglect.

That all changed starting in the 1970s when federal courts around the country issued consent decrees in response to class-action lawsuits, and required substantial upgrades in care and conditions in the existing institutions. At that same time, a new system of smaller, privately run but state-funded group homes began to appear as residential options for many of the former residents of the larger institutions. A network of state-run group homes was created as well in Massachusetts.

During the past 20 years, the privatized group home system has overtaken and surpassed both the state-run group home network and the large facilities both in terms of state funding and number of residents. All but two of the large facilities have been closed in Massachusetts.

But the new system of thousands of dispersed group homes has its own set of structural problems. This system that replaced the large, centralized facilities has been much harder for the state to monitor with regard to care and conditions and with respect to the finances of the nonprofit agencies that directly operate the residences. In addition, the group home system operates today under a waiver of stringent federal Medicaid regulations that still govern the remaining large facilities.

The growth of the corporate provider system has also resulted in the creation of a largely hidden bureaucracy of highly paid executives of those nonprofit agencies. These executives have seen their own levels of compensation rise as the wages of direct-care staff have remained stagnant or failed to keep pace with inflation.

Due to the combination of poor oversight and and relatively low pay and training of direct-care staff, the privatized group-home system has for some time exhibited many of the warehouse-like characteristics of the former institutions prior to the 1980s. In addition to failing to address problems of abuse and neglect, the group-home system has not been able to provide promised openness and community integration. We hear about stories like Yianni’s all the time.

Yet, in Massachusetts, the private providers have established themselves as a powerful lobbying force on Beacon Hill and have essentially captured the system’s managerial and regulatory agency, DDS, which has continued to press for more and more privatization of services. The result today is a growing imbalance in state funding of DDS services. A priority has been placed by successive administrations and by the Legislature in Massachusetts on privatized care at the expense of state-run care.

In addition to worsening the problems of abuse and neglect, the funding imbalance has reduced the availability of state-run services as a choice to a growing number of people waiting for residential care and placements.

These issues need to be examined in a comprehensive way. That’s why we are calling for hearings by the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee on problems with privatized care and what needs to be done to address them.

We’re urging people to call Rep. Khan (617-722-2011) or Senator Joan Lovely (617-722-1230), Senate chair of the Children and Families Committee, to ask the committee to schedule hearings on the privatized DDS group home system in Massachusetts.

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New Yorker article on guardianship abuses has familiar ring

November 8, 2017 Leave a comment

An article last month in The New Yorker magazine on abuses in the guardianship system in Nevada is beyond disturbing, and its findings echo many of the concerns we have raised about the dysfunction of the Department of Developmental Services and probate court systems in Massachusetts.

The New Yorker article is primarily about abuses by guardians of the elderly, and it gets into an issue we haven’t fully explored, which is the financial exploitation of people who are represented by professional guardians. But we think many of the article’s points are relevant to the system involving DDS-paid guardians in Massachusetts.

As we have seen in several cases in Massachusetts, the DDS-probate guardianship system has trampled over the rights of family members of developmentally disabled persons, including sharply limiting or even eliminating their right in some cases to contact or visit their loved ones. That is also apparently a feature of the system described in the New Yorker piece.

As is the case in Massachusetts, the primary problems with the system exposed by the New Yorker article appear to lie with abuses by attorneys or other professionals who are appointed as guardians of incapacitated individuals. In many of these cases, family members, who would be better suited to be the guardians, are passed over by the courts and excluded from consideration for that role.

The article and previous reporting by The Las Vegas Review-Journal disclose how two professional guardians named April Parks and Jared Shafer used the probate system in Nevada to become court-appointed guardians of hundreds of people who were mostly elderly, and then took control of their bank accounts, estates,and property.

It isn’t clear whether that type of financial abuse has happened to developmentally disabled persons in Massachusetts, but there appears to be a potential for it. In 2008, an investigative article in The Boston Globe found that some 900 DDS clients in Massachusetts received little or no benefit from trust funds containing some $30 million.

Instead, the money was largely siphoned out of the accounts to pay bank management charges, legal bills, and fees charged by the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court system, “which has long neglected its obligation to ensure the funds are expended for the benefit of some of the state’s most helpless citizens.”

In July, COFAR reported that the state’s system of paying attorneys and corporate providers to serve as guardians of DDS clients is poorly overseen and that the system appears to give professional guardians an incentive to do little work representing individual clients while taking on as many clients as possible.

Families have also been victimized financially by the Massachusetts system. As one family member of a DDS client in Massachusetts described the attitude of the various guardians and clinical and court professionals that she dealt with in the DDS-probate system, “it was just a given that our checkbook was theirs.”

The New Yorker reported that without their families even knowing it, in many instances,  elderly people were removed from their homes by Parks and Shafer who then sold their property and pocketed the money. Parks was indicted last spring on theft and other charges after the local media finally ran stories on the issue.

The New Yorker article further stated that when family members tried to contest the guardianships or become guardians themselves, “they were dismissed as unsuitable, and disparaged in court records as being neglectful, or as drug addicts, gamblers, and exploiters.”  That sounds familiar to us because it is what we’ve seen in a number of cases in Massachusetts.

Another revelation in the article that sounded familiar to us was that the professional guardians often would not inform families about the care and conditions of their loved ones, and often prevented family members from being able to visit them. The director of an assisted-living facility into which many of the wards were placed, is quoted as saying that families were “devastated that they couldn’t know if the residents were in surgery or hear anything about their health. They didn’t understand why they’d been taken out of the picture. They’d ask, ‘Can you just tell me if she’s alive?’ ”

In one case, an elderly couple was moved with little notice by April Parks to a new assisted-living facility. When their daughter tried to visit them there, Parks refused to let her see her parents. According to the article, Parks later wrote that she had told the woman that “she was too distraught to see her parents, and that she needed to leave.” When the woman refused to leave the facility, Parks had the police called who then cited the woman for trespassing.

This sounds very similar to the reasoning given for keeping David and Ashley Barr from visiting David’s daughter, a developmentally disabled woman who has been ordered kept from their contact by a DDS-paid guardian since November 2015. The Barrs were supposedly too emotional when visiting her even though they said the reason they were emotional was because they often found her to be in a heavily drugged state during the visits.

Another family was prevented from talking to their daughter on the phone for a similar reason.

Another revelation in the New Yorker article that had a familiar ring was a description of the longstanding inaction of investigative authorities when presented with evidence of abuses in the guardianship system.

As we’ve said many times, a first step in reforming the DDS-probate system in Massachusetts would be for the Legislature to enact H.887,  a bill which would establish a presumption that parents of a developmentally disabled person are suitable guardians for that person.

The bill would thus make it harder for parents to be bypassed by probate judges who tend to side with DDS, which often favors the appointment of professional guardians in the place of families.

H.887, however, has been stuck in the Judiciary Committee since last January despite the fact that there appears to be no public opposition to the measure. It has been re-filed by Representative David Linsky in every Legislative session since 1999, but has never gotten out of the Judiciary Committee to our knowledge.

We’re hoping, as usual, that this year will be different. But despite a supportive statement last spring from Representative Claire Cronin, House chair of the Committee, that the bill was her “top priority,” the measure hasn’t moved forward in the current legislative session.

It’s time for the Judiciary Committee to finally act on H.887.  The numbers to call there are:

(617) 722-2396 for the office of Rep. Cronin, House chair; and/or

(617) 722-1280 for the office of Senator William Brownsberger, Senate chair.

As noted, this bill is only a first step. We are continuing to urge others in the Legislature as well to step forward to address the underlying systemic problems in the DDS and probate court systems.