By Henri E. Cauvin and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The District filed court papers Monday seeking a takeover of two group homes, saying the operators of the privately run facilities are endangering the health and safety of the mentally disabled residents.
The homes are two of the 11 facilities operated by Individual Development, a nonprofit group whose board includes three politically connected lawyers, David W. Wilmot, Frederick D. Cooke Jr. and A. Scott Bolden.
A federal court monitor and legal advocates for the mentally disabled have been raising concerns for years about the quality of care at IDI's homes, Sandy Bernstein of the advocacy group University Legal Services said Monday night.
After an investigator from ULS found that one resident had inexplicably lost 26 pounds in a month, the court monitor asked the District to act on a long list of concerns about IDI's homes on 53rd Street SE and Edson Place NE, Bernstein said.
"I think this was action that needed to be taken," said Bernstein, who represents the plaintiffs in a long-running class-action lawsuit against the District over services for the mentally disabled.
In announcing the court action, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said that investigators from two D.C. agencies had found chronic and serious problems at the group homes, substantiating four complaints of neglect, one of abuse and one involving serious physical injury.
"This court action," Nickles said in a statement, "sends a clear signal to providers that the District will not tolerate recurrent deficient practices that put our most vulnerable citizens at substantial risk to their health, safety and welfare."
The complaint pits Nickles and his hard-nosed style against some of the most influential players in D.C. politics. Wilmot, who is chairman and president of IDI, frequently represents major companies in dealings with the city. Cooke, the nonprofit group's secretary, once held Nickles's job as the city's top attorney and is well known as the personal attorney to D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).
Bolden, who's the treasurer of IDI, has been tussling with Nickles and the city of late. He won a court victory for Cora Masters Barry's nonprofit group after the city moved to evict it from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. And the city backed off a plan to remove 170 special education students from a private Springfield school represented by Bolden.
After the complaint was filed Monday against IDI, Bolden said the accusations are unfounded.
"We categorically deny that we've been responsible for any abuse or any neglect," said Bolden, who said he was speaking as the nonprofit group's attorney.
He said many of the incidents occurred outside the homes while the clients were at adult day-care facilities, but IDI reported those incidents, working with monitors, city officials and consultants.
IDI received a list of violations Monday and was given 10 days to provide the city with a corrective action plan, Bolden said, noting the conflict of receiving a notice of violations and a complaint for receivership on the same day.
"The government can't have it both ways," he said. "Either you want a . . . corrective action plan or you want" receivership.
IDI has a long history with the city, Bolden said. "It is clear from our record that we have provided nothing less than high-quality and excellent service to the most fragile clients in the District of Columbia."
But Bernstein of ULS said IDI has a long record of responding to complaints with good plans, only to fall back on bad practices once the spotlight is off. "They would show a little progress, but then they would be back to having serious deficiencies in the homes."
The District's legal strategy against IDI uses the same law that city attorneys have used in a crackdown against landlords of some of the city's most neglected apartment buildings.
Elizabeth Jones, who serves as the court monitor in the class-action case and who has analyzed complaints at the two homes, said the city had taken a welcome step. "These are very serious concerns, and I applaud this bold action," Jones said Monday night.
Services for the District's mentally disabled residents have long been one of the most troubled corners of the District government. A class-action lawsuit filed in 1976 over conditions at the city's Forest Haven asylum in Laurel led to the facility's closing in 1991.
But the network of group homes that took the place of Forest Haven turned out to be little better. Many provided poor care that went ignored for years, even as the District was paying out tens of millions of dollars to group home operators.
Several reforms have been made over the past decade, although the class-action suit continues and the Department of Disability Services is under court supervision.
Each of the two homes targeted in the District's complaint is licensed to serve up to eight people, although each is serving seven, the city's complaint says. So far, one resident has been relocated, Bernstein said.
In its filing, the District highlights the salaries of IDI's officers and the revenue the nonprofit group has taken in from the city. Wilmot, a longtime power broker in city politics, receives an annual salary of $300,000 as chairman and president of IDI, the complaint says, citing a D.C. Council hearing in 2008.
Over three fiscal years, from 2007 to 2009, IDI was paid $35.4 million to operate its 11 facilities, including $3.6 million each for the 53rd Street and Edson Place group homes, the complaint says.
Most of the residents cared for by IDI are medically fragile, and so the company has generally been paid a daily per-person rate that is among the highest in the District, exceeding $500 per diem in the fiscal year that ended last month.