Abuse, Deaths in D.C. Group Homes Detailed
Citing Scaldings and Starvation, Filing Urges Court to Hold City in Contempt

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.

Although a consulting firm working for the District investigates questionable deaths, its reports are not made public. D.C. officials have cited privacy concerns. The Washington Post has asked for the reports with the names of the deceased deleted and has filed suit to get the records.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) pledged six years ago to fix the homes after a Washington Post series disclosed 350 documented cases of abuse and neglect in group homes. Vincent Morris, a spokesman for the mayor, said Williams is trying to improve care and denounced the D.C. Council's recent cut in the agency's budget, saying it would make a court takeover more likely.

This fall, after a court monitor flagged concerns about deaths, the city shut down a group home that was faulted in two of the cases.

"These are human beings, just like anybody else, who just need a little extra attention and help from the District of Columbia," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who heads the council's Committee on Human Services and has been working on the issue. "And they didn't get it. And it cost them their lives."

The Justice Department's filing cited internal investigations that found group home residents endured non-fatal abuse as well. They have been slapped, punched, pushed, scratched, kicked or the targets of sexual advances.

A 66-year-old was intentionally scalded with hot water -- so badly that the resident had to be treated at a burn unit. Another resident was subjected to a barrage of profanity and a beating with a hairbrush. And another was allowed to fall down a staircase, fracturing both hips, Justice lawyers said.

During a council hearing last week on financial mismanagement within the agency, Fenty called the police after two mentally retarded wards took the witness stand and described their incidents of physical abuse.

"One man said he was beat up, and another woman said her daughter was abused," Fenty said. "We had to call the police to come take reports on these incidents. Someone has to be arrested."

The abuse went beyond the physical and psychological.

One caregiver skimmed $200 every two weeks from a resident's paycheck for more than five years. Another took $70 a month from a resident's Social Security and disability benefits for almost a year. And in another home, two residents had cash and a camcorder stolen by their caregivers, the Justice Department wrote in its filing.

In nearly all the cases -- death, neglect, abuse and theft -- the recurrent theme was a lack of case management, according to investigators. They said the residents weren't visited, monitored or checked according to schedules.

At Fenty's hearing, the agency said 47 out of about 1,800 patients got the requisite monthly visits each year. "It is shocking how little case managers met with their clients," Fenty said.

Improving follow-ups and monitoring is first on the list for the agency, said its administrator, Marsha H. Thompson.

"I do have a primary goal: I'd like to overhaul our case management system," she said. "Everyone has to accept responsibility for not only your piece but also for assisting or expediting other pieces. This comes back down to pure coordination."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company