Problems at D.C.-funded AIDS program also reported at homes for mentally ill

By Debbie Cenziper
Thursday, February 4, 2010; B01

The founder of a city-funded AIDS program that recently closed amid reports of alleged fraud and neglect also operated eight facilities for the mentally ill that were racked for years by similar problems, city officials said.

Marilyn Hill began receiving licenses from the D.C. Department of Mental Health in 2002 to operate community residential facilities for people with mental illnesses. Property records show Hill rented most of the houses, which were based in Northwest and Northeast Washington neighborhoods.

District long-term care ombudsman Gerald Kasunic recently told The Washington Post that he verified 59 cases of abuse, exploitation, poor care, financial irregularities and other problems at the facilities, dating to 2005. Kasunic, whose office represents residents in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and group homes, said he forwarded the findings to the Department of Mental Health, but the agency repeatedly renewed Hill's licenses.

In 2008, after three years of complaints, the city opted not to renew the licenses.

"We've brought this to the attention of Mental Health as far back as 2005," Kasunic said. "I remember the frustration of trying to get them to move forward."

While Hill operated homes for the mentally ill, her nonprofit group, Hill's Community Residential Support Services, drew money from the D.C. Department of Health's HIV/AIDS Administration to house women with AIDS. The house closed last fall, with former employees describing unpaid bills, doctored records and shoddy care.

Unrenewed licenses

Unlike the HIV/AIDS Administration, which awarded more than $1 million in grants to Hill's program, the Department of Mental Health provided no money. Instead, with a license from the agency, Hill drew fees for room and board from her clients' Social Security payments and other public benefits.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles confirmed the problems at Hill's mental health facilities, including a lack of staff, improperly stored medications and lapses in insurance coverage. He said Hill voluntarily closed two of the houses in 2005. In 2008, Nickles said, the Department of Mental Health opted not to renew the remaining licenses after the agency "took progressive enforcement action against [the homes] due to her poor management and violation of Department of Mental Health rules."

"The administration has worked hard to reform many District agencies," Nickles said. "While we've made great progress, there is still a long way to go. But we are committed to ensuring that the city provides the best possible services and partners with the best providers."

Kasunic said the Department of Mental Health took little action against Hill for years. He said his frustration grew after he learned from a recent Washington Post report about Hill's years-long partnership with the HIV/AIDS Administration, which continued to fund Hill's AIDS program despite complaints from clients and scathing reports from the agency's monitors.

"It should never have gotten this far," Kasunic said. "We have 4 1/2 years of history with Marilyn Hill."

Hill could not be reached for comment. Previously, she defended her AIDS program, telling The Post that disgruntled employees were making false statements. She denied wrongdoing.

In October, The Post detailed a string of problems at Hill's AIDS program, which was most recently based at a rented house in Northwest, including staff turnover, poor building conditions, double-billing for salaries and questionable expenses. Former employees also described a lack of staff, food, therapy and support services, as well as falsified pay stubs and other records that they said helped Hill draw money from the District's AIDS program.

After the series, Nickles launched a citywide investigation of AIDS groups. The D.C. inspector general has begun an audit of Hill's program.

A bag of onions

At Hill's mental health facilities, Kasunic said, patients regularly complained about a lack of staff, electricity and food.

"Maybe there was a bag of onions in the basement," said Mary Ann Parker, attorney for the ombudsman's program. "The running joke was, 'Oh, we're going to do the shopping tomorrow.' "

In one case, Kasunic's office found that a Hill employee was on parole and wearing an ankle bracelet. In another case, Kasunic learned that one resident had been sexually assaulted by another but that Hill had delayed reporting the incident to city officials.

Overall, Kasunic said he investigated 61 complaints involving 23 people, verifying nearly every allegation. Yet the Department of Mental Health did not move to revoke Hill's license until officials learned in 2008 that an unsupervised resident had collapsed in one of Hill's facilities, Kasunic said.

Kasunic could not provide details about any of the incidents because of privacy and confidentiality laws.

Besides the AIDS and mental health facilities, records show Hill operated a separate nonprofit organization called Yayah's Inc., which drew more than $800,000 from a handful of city agencies for work with at-risk youths. About half the money came from the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The Department of Health's drug program provided about $135,000, records show.

City officials did not immediately respond to requests for information about Yayah's. Details in business records are scarce.

Hill's estranged husband was also licensed to run a facility for the mentally ill, city officials said. In 2008, Kasunic said, staff left the facility because of an ongoing bedbug infestation.

Nickles said Sherman Hill's program was shut down last year "due to dangerous conditions."

Sherman Hill had also once run his own city-funded AIDS program, which was awarded more than $500,000 in 2005 and 2006. The HIV/AIDS Administration terminated the funding when the inspector general could find no evidence that he was operating an AIDS group.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said the city has been pushing to strengthen the Department of Mental Health and the HIV/AIDS Administration. It takes time, he said, to "weed out" problem providers.

"There is a legacy in this city of connected individuals who embed themselves so deeply in the bureaucracy that it is hard to extricate them," Catania said. "It makes me furious."

Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company