Saturday, November 21, 2009

Death of disabled man at Philadelphia home for people with intellectual disabilities remains a mystery

From the Philadelphia Daily News:

It was after midnight in mid-April, and Greg Harlen would not stop screaming in his room at the Cardinal Krol Center.

Harlen, 52, a resident of the Philadelphia Archdiocese-run home for mentally handicapped men, was lying in his bed, writhing in pain.

Both of his hips had been shattered.

Later that morning, staffers decided to call 9-1-1. Harlen, who had Down syndrome, was taken to Springfield Hospital - nearly 20 hours after he is believed to have suffered a mysterious trauma that broke his hips.

He died in the hospital about a month later of complications from his injuries.

"I can't imagine the pain he was in," said Harlen's sister, Sheila Phelan. "I don't understand why they didn't send him to the hospital long before they did."

Harlen's death has renewed scrutiny of the center's operations, five years after the state Health Department released a scathing report that said the 131-bed home in Delaware County had failed to protect its residents from sexual abuse by another resident - and other serious violations.

"What's happening out there?" Phelan asked. "Is this normal, that people scream?"

Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said she couldn't comment on Harlen's case because the investigation was ongoing.

"Greg's death was a real loss and hit everyone here very hard," she said.

It remains unclear how Harlen was injured, whether he was beaten by another person or fell. He was unable to speak afterward.

Harlen's family believes that he was assaulted by a caregiver there, but police are awaiting the neuropathology results from his autopsy before deciding whether to proceed with a criminal investigation.

Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services determined last month that Harlen, formerly of Northeast Philadelphia, should have been taken to the hospital sooner.

The department found that, "given the intensity and duration" of Harlen's crying on April 16 and 17 and other indications that he was in pain, "more timely action should have been taken by the agency to assess Mr. Harlen for injuries and necessary medical treatment."

Records show that the center, in Marple Township across from Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery, has repeatedly been cited by the state in recent years for a range of violations, some of which are recurring.

Over the past year alone, the center's state-issued certification of compliance was temporarily revoked twice due to "serious substandard conditions" there.

"Many of them are very serious violations," said Jacqueline Beilharz, of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, a federally mandated nonprofit that seeks to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Health Department inspectors have found that the center has failed to maintain complete medical records, properly train its staff, protect residents from physical abuse by other residents and conduct full background checks on some employees.

Kathy Perry, of the Arc of Delaware County, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, said her office has received several complaints about the center.

"It's kind of gone downhill," she said.

Five months after Harlen died, his family and several investigating agencies are still trying to figure out what happened.

"He was fatally assaulted, resulting in his death. That's how I see it," said Harlen's brother-in-law, Jack Phelan. "It was very good, but I think in recent times, this place has gone down the tubes, and he became a victim of their incompetence."

Marple Township police and the Delaware County District Attorney's Office are investigating, but they have not been able to determine how Harlan was hurt.

Harlen's family said they were told that a caregiver has been questioned by authorities and suspended from his job. No arrests have been made.

County Medical Examiner Fredric Hellman said Harlen's neuropathology results are expected within two weeks. Those results could determine the manner of death, and whether criminal charges will be filed, said Senior Deputy District Attorney Jay Mattera.

Harlen, who lived at the Cardinal Krol center for 43 years, was a member of the baseball challenger league and the "Wise Guys" vocal group that performed on and off campus.

"He was a very sweet person, very accommodating," Sheila Phelan said. "He never caused any trouble."

"Someone robbed him of the remaining years of his life," Jack Phelan said.

Farrell said she couldn't discuss the status of the caregiver who has been questioned by police, but said that, "generally speaking, when a serious situation occurs and an investigation is pending, certain staff members who are part of the situation would be placed on administrative leave."

Stacey Witalec, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare, said the Cardinal Krol Center had been granted a provisional license due to violations but that it had corrected those issues.

"At this point, we would view them as being in compliance," Witalec said.

Beilharz, of the Disability Rights Network, said the center's history of problems is an example of why state oversight of such homes needs to be modified. She said that state officials typically give facilities the opportunity to correct the problems after each inspection, but do not necessarily penalize them for recurring problems.

"They sort of wipe the slate clean once those deficiencies are addressed and they start over the next time," Beilharz said.

"Nothing gets resolved," Jack Phelan said.

Farrell insists that the criticism of the center is unwarranted, saying that workers there provide a "high level of care and compassion."

She said additional training and management oversight has been implemented and that the center has revised its investigative policy for severe injuries, requiring an independent certified investigator to review all cases.

"We hear regularly from the families of the men how comforted they are by the care their sons, brothers or relatives receive at the CK Center," Farrell said.

She said that all of the approximately 415 employees there have passed a criminal-background check and that the center was cooperating with detectives investigating Harlen's death.

Meanwhile, all that Harlen's family has is unanswered questions: How was he injured? Why did it take so long to get him to the hospital? Where is the caregiver that they suspect assaulted him?

Sheila Phelan said her brother loved living at the Cardinal Krol Center, which she said was once a "wonderful place." Now, she's not so sure about that.

"The bottom line is, he's dead," Perry said, "and someone needs to be held accountable."