Friday, April 24, 2009

Pittsburgh TV station investigates abuses at Pennsylvania group homes for people with intellectual disabilities

From Team 4 investigation at WTAE-TV. You can watch the report here.

PITTSBURGH -- A Team 4 investigation uncovers abuse and neglect of the most vulnerable adults in our community -- those with mental retardation.

And as if that's not bad enough, here's something else:

Pennsylvania allows for an inescapable conflict of interest when it comes to investigating reports of abuse in group homes. The companies that own them are permitted to investigate themselves.

Team 4 read through hundreds of incident reports from a two-year period alleging abuse or neglect of people with mental retardation -- and that was just for half a dozen companies with group home licenses in our area that we randomly sampled.

Across Pennsylvania, there are almost 250 licenses and over 6,000 group homes, resulting in an average of more than 3,000 complaints of abuse and neglect every year.

Each of those incidents gets an investigation. But regardless of the outcome, critics say the system gives them no confidence in those investigations.

Tens of thousands of them live in small group homes set in communities throughout Pennsylvania, and you pay the companies who care for these persons with mental retardation. Government funds pay to operate community living arrangements like this one in Aliquippa, this one in Monessen and this one in Coraopolis.

And because they're publicly funded, Team 4 was able to obtain partially redacted incident reports detailing allegations of abuse and neglect.

At a community living arrangement operated by Passavant Memorial Homes: a confirmed case of an employee taking a photo of a naked group home resident. The incident report says the employee then showed the photo to patrons at a bar " ... and was laughing ..." ' at the resident and "referred to the men that live at the facility as the retards that I take care of." Passavant terminated the employee.

During an outing from a Turtle Creek Valley group home, staff and residents stopped at a store. Witnesses say when one resident "grabbed a Gatorade and started to drink it ... a staff member hit him on the side of his head so hard that his earphones fell and the batteries rolled onto the floor." Turtle Creek Valley terminated the employee.

And at one of Allegheny Valley School's group homes, a confirmed report that while changing the adult brief on a resident, a staff member " ... took a pillow that was on the table and put it over the individual's face and shook it ... apparently thinking it was humorous as he was laughing." Allegheny Valley School terminated the employee.

Ilene Shane, Disability Rights Network: "Most providers are decent people. They don't go into this field to get rich. They go into this field because they care about the people who they serve. But in every situation, you're going to have some bad apples and the question is, how thorough are we at weeding out those bad apples?"

Marlene Popielarcheck, parent: "The system is set up to protect the providers and the county, not to protect the individuals they're serving."

Marlene Popielarcheck has been fighting the system ever since her 39-year old son, Casey, entered his first group home. She's been happy with Casey's treatment at some of those homes, unhappy with it at others. But good or bad, Marlene has two assumptions about group homes.

Marlene Popielarcheck: "That there is abuse going on, that staff does abuse, and that the findings, because they self-investigate, are always in favor of the staff person."

Not always in favor of staff -- but often.

Pennsylvania's Office of Mental Retardation has certified 2,000 investigators, but only 54 of them actually work for the state. The rest work for the companies that own the group homes. And when an allegation of abuse is made, it's up to the group home to choose the person who will investigate. Usually, it's someone who works for the same company.

Jacqui Beilharz, Disability Rights Network: "Far too often, those allegations come back unfounded, unsubstantiated."

Beihlarz, of the advocacy group Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, says abuse investigations are open to employer interference -- and in fact, she knows of at least one case where it happened in another part of the state.

Beihlarz: "And when they wrote their report with their findings, they were required to change their findings, and they ended up leaving the organization as a result."

Disability Rights Network's former executive director is now deputy secretary at the state's Office of Mental Retardation.

Parsons: "Did you have concerns when you were executive director of that agency at times about the objectivity of these certified investigators?"

Kevin Casey, OMR deputy secretary: "Sure, I did."

Parsons: "Do you still?"

Casey: "At times, I do. Yes. That's why we have the backup system."

The backup system consists of county and state employees looking over investigators' reports, but Casey admits they rarely follow up with a personal visit to the home.

Casey: "I don't think we're doing enough at this point. We need to do more."

So I asked Casey an obvious question. Why does the state do it this way? Why not use an independent agency to investigate allegations of abuse at group homes for people with mental retardation?

Casey: "I'm going to level with you. You can make that argument that some type of a totally independent entity to do that type of an investigation might have fewer conflicts of interest."

Parsons: "Are you saying that you'd be in favor of that?"

Casey: "I'm saying that it is something well worth discussion."

Rep. Jake Wheatley, of Pittsburgh, says he'll consider taking action along those lines. Wheatley is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Mental Health. He told us he'd be watching tonight's Team 4 investigation. We'll let you know what he has to say.

Team 4 received statements from the three group home companies mentioned in our report.

Passavant Memorial Homes says that its "policy dictates that investigations are conducted by investigative staff who are not associated with the program area or personnel under review in order to avoid any potential conflicts of interest during the investigative process." Read Passavant Memorial Homes Statement

Allegheny Valley School says it " ... explicitly prohibits all forms of abuse and neglect, requires our employees to report abuse and neglect, and has zero tolerance for abuse and neglect." Read Allegheny Valley School Statement

Turtle Creek Valley MH/MR says "... it's always possible that there will be a conflict of interest because the system is set up where we investigate ourselves. So we have created a committee that reviews all incidents and critiques. What did we do well? What could we do better?"