Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Disabled DC man dies before government assistance is approved

From intro to a story in The Washington Post. The picture is of James Burrell, 78, who tried to get D.C. government care for a developmentally disabled man he volunteered to visit.

"Mr. Johnson" badly burned himself while trying to cook. There were roaches on him when he showed up for medical appointments. He had difficulty using the toilet and rarely took his medication.

But for years, the 65-year-old was deemed ineligible for help by the District agency that cares for mentally and physically disabled residents. For bureaucratic reasons, he officially did not exist.

In February, the District finally approved funding for him.

It was for his burial.

That detail made the District's acting attorney general, Peter Nickles, call it "a sad story, the ultimate sad story," and a case that "fell through the cracks." City officials yesterday acknowledged mishandling the case and vowed to investigate.

Mr. Johnson, the pseudonym used by lawyers who took up the man's case in recent years, was hit by a bus when he was a toddler, in the 1940s. Doctors concluded that he was left mentally disabled, and for decades he remained at home under his mother's care.

When the mother died 15 years ago, the man's well-being fell to a volunteer who cleaned, shopped and tried to arrange medical care from the city's agency for the mentally disabled. But the volunteer's efforts could not keep the man from living in squalor, hurting himself, skipping his medication and ultimately dying in a diabetic coma.

Mr. Johnson was caught in a bureaucratic loop. Because his childhood care was provided by his mother, he was not part of the government system and therefore was denied services as an adult, according to a report released by University Legal Services last week.

Instead of getting the services the man needed and qualified for, "he was rejected," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said at a news conference he called yesterday in response to The Washington Post's questions about the case. "The Department of Disabilities Services, upon review of the records, mishandled the case on two occasions."

The legal advocacy group said it wrote the report to shine a light on a bureaucracy's fatal focus on paperwork protocol that kept a person in need from getting help.

"We have other clients like him who have been waiting around for services, and they are denied services simply because they don't have the right records, usually documents from D.C. public schools," said Mary Nell Clark, managing attorney for University Legal Services.

The group represents abuse victims in a 30-year-old lawsuit against the District over quality of care in group homes for the mentally and physically disabled.

Mr. Johnson's case began with the help of James Burrell, 78, (pictured above) a retiree who worked in an AARP outreach program. In 1989, the former Department of Defense worker volunteered with AARP and was assigned to help the man and his mother with paperwork and bills.

When the man's mother died in 1993, it was clear that the government would have to step in because the man had no other relatives. Burrell made some calls and kept helping the man while awaiting answers, he said.

Paying bills turned into doing laundry, buying groceries, scheduling medical appointments and cleaning the house of a man who functioned as a small child, Burrell said.

Burrell was aging, too, and was having difficulty caring for the man. He called multiple government agencies but had a terrible time getting anyone to see the need.