Abuse, Deaths in D.C. Group Homes Detailed

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Newly filed court papers give vivid and startling details about the extent of abuse -- from severe scaldings to fatal starvation -- that mentally and physically disabled residents have endured in some of the District's group homes.

Emily, 60, who liked movies, shopping and piling mountains of stuffed animals on her bed, weighed only 50 pounds when she died in 2004, the Justice Department wrote in a court filing last week, warning that hers was not an isolated case.

Caregivers effused about Mike's love of eating out, watching sports and going for walks. The same caregivers stood by as his weight dropped precipitously, according to court papers, and he suffered anemia, gangrene of the stomach and organ failure. He slipped into a coma, then died last year at age 41.

At his group home, Jake, 52, had periodic problems with diarrhea for 10 months before his death last year, and none of his caregivers increased his fluids or changed his diet, the Justice Department said.

Matthew died at age 43. He loved eating out, going on trips and watching sports. Like the others, he was chronically underweight and, like the others, was not given proper attention, the Justice Department said. He died a month and a half after his housemate, Emily, dropped to her fatal 50 pounds.

Each of these people was a mentally disabled ward of the District who died in the past two years after inexcusable lapses in care, the Justice Department said, urging a judge to hold the District in contempt of court for not meeting repeated promises of reform. Other mentally and physically disabled residents of group homes were beaten, berated, sexually accosted, neglected or targeted for theft, Justice lawyers said.

To protect the victims' privacy, the Justice Department used pseudonyms for the people who died or were harmed. But the circumstances were real, the government said, and represented a pattern dating back decades.

The papers, filed in U.S. District Court, cited 14 "preventable and questionable" deaths since January 2003. They included a 54-year-old woman who was never screened for colon cancer and died from the disease, a 58-year-old woman who was untreated for illness for so long that she went into septic shock and a 45-year-old man who did not get proper help for a swallowing disorder.

University Legal Services, which represents the plaintiffs in a 30-year-old lawsuit over quality of care, wants the judge to order a court takeover of the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, the D.C. government agency in charge of caring for nearly 2,000 mentally and physically disabled residents. Like the Justice Department, its ally in the suit, the advocacy group filed papers detailing various abuses.

"How many more deaths do we have to have?" asked Sandy Bernstein, legal director for University Legal Services. "These are not complicated problems: weight loss, bowel issues, hydration. These are issues any caretaker should be able to address."

The documents bring renewed scrutiny to conditions in many group homes run by private providers for the city.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, who has faulted the D.C. government in the case, has scheduled a hearing for June 29.

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