The Veterans Administration, in an unusual legal action, has asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to force the operator of an unlicensed community care home in Northwest Washington to release two elderly veterans whom the VA placed in the home in December and January.
The VA has been joined in its court battle by the attorney for a 65-year-old woman, Lena McNeel, placed in the home by St. Elizabeths Hospital. McNeel's lawyer says McNeel has written him a letter saying she was being mistreated at the home.
The operating license for the six-bed home at 4019 Marlboro Place NW, run by 32-year-old Senora Atakulu, expired last August, according to city officials, but the home has continued to operate. McNeel's lawyer says Atakulu will not let him see McNeel, and the VA says it has not been allowed to see the veterans, Joseph Armstrong and Leroy Norris, both of whom it described as mentally ill.
The VA and McNeel's lawyer are seeking an unusual writ of habeas corpus to force Atakulu to produce the three patients. Atakulu has responded that the patients are free to come and go as they please. But the case has dragged on, with several hearings having been set and later postponed. An administrative hearing by city officials is scheduled for today.
Meanwhile, the unlicensed home continues to operate, and there are at least five residents in the home: Armstrong, Norris, McNeel, a man from a Virginia hospital, and a third veteran not included in the VA's court case.
Atakulu says she will not give up the patients because the three have signed statements saying they do not want to leave, according to Robert Price, her lawyer. Price says Atakulu, who receives about $1,200 to care for the two veterans and McNeel, feels she's being "pushed around by the bureaucracy" and being harassed by "goody-goody social workers who want to run the world."
Price says McNeel and the veterans are free to leave the house, and several witnesses at court hearings have testified that the veterans have been seen walking around the neighborhood. The tangled legal dispute is simply a way for the city to "close her down through the back door" by pulling out three of the residents there, Price said.
The VA says it must remove the elderly World War II veterans because Atakulu's license has expired and they have not been allowed into the home to make sure the veterans are receiving adequate care.
As for the signed statements that Atakulu says she has from the veterans, the VA says they are meaningless because both have been declared mentally incompetent either by a court or the VA.
McNeel's attorney, Scott Daniels, said in court papers that he received the following letter from McNeel last January: "I am being mistreated here. Last Sunday Senora knocked me down on the floor, kicked me and pulled my hair. See what you can do to get me out of here. . . . I am 65 years old and can't take that kind of treatment."
The months-long standoff, which federal and city officials describe as bizarre, actually began shortly after city officials -- after making routine reference and background checks -- issued a one-year license to Atakulu in August 1980.
Several months later, social workers reported to supervisors that they were concerned that Atakulu might not be providing proper meals for the residents and possibly mistreating at least one resident, charges which have yet to be proved true or false. Atakulu denied the charges.
The biggest problem social workers, health officials and other city officials said they encountered was that they often could not get into the home. They said that on the occasions when they were admitted, Atakulu told them the residents were not there and she did not cooperate in arranging times when they could see the residents.
In a meeting last July attended by mental health workers, St. Elizabeths staff and other Department of Human Services officials, Atakulu was told that St. Elizabeths, which originally had placed two patients in the home, had decided to remove both of them.
Atakulu was told, according to officials, that she must grant free access to health and social workers and must correct deficiencies in diets she provided some patients.
Atakulu's license expired in August, a month after that meeting, and DHS officials warned her in writing that it was against the law to continue to operate without a license.
In the meantime, St. Elizabeths officials removed one of the elderly women they had placed in the home, but they were unable to gain McNeel's release.
Attorney Daniels said in an interview last week that he talked with McNeel by phone shortly after he received the letter alleging mistreatment and confirmed that she wanted to leave. On March 2, Elizabeth Vegos, who works for the city's division of Adult Protective Services, went to the home to see McNeel. McNeel answered the door and said she would leave, Vegos testified at a recent hearing, but wanted to talk with her brother first.
Vegos went upstairs to call McNeel's brother and encountered Atakulu, who, Vegos testified, pushed Vegos down the stairs and chased her out of the house.
That, apparently, is the last time a social worker saw Lena McNeel. Three days after the incident, Daniels got a typed, notarized letter signed by McNeel which said she did eat three meals a day and received her medication.
"Scott please mail Mrs. Atakulu her $376 for March 1982 which is my rent and my $200 for personal spending money for the months of February and March 1982. I am fine and I am not having any problems," McNeel said in the letter.
In court papers, Daniels said that Atakulu is "holding McNeel against her will," and that Atakulu had not allowed Daniels or McNeel's brother to visit her in the home. Daniels said he attempted three times recently to see McNeel. On each occasion, he said, he was told she was not in.
The VA and Daniels, who have cut off payments to Atakulu, continue to press their case in Superior Court.
Asked why Atakulu would try to keep the veterans and McNeel even after the payment cut-off, Price said Atakulu -- who declined to comment and declined to identify herself to a reporter who went to the home recently -- feels the battle is a "matter of principle and she is not going to be pushed around by the bureacracy."
Price said the charge that Atakulu does not allow visitors in the home is "ridiculous. All sorts of people, like handymen and others are in and out of the home all the time," he said. When asked if the visitors included city health officials and social workers, Price said, "Well, she has a problem with people in authority."
City officials involved in the dispute are reluctant to discuss it. But one official close to the case said it was "unfortunate that this has gone on this long." That official, who asked not to be identified, conceded that the city should have acted immediately when Atakulu's license expired last August. "We should have either renewed her license by the end of August or closed her down," that official said.
Atakulu asked that her license be renewed, and the city did not shut down the home, even though there is "no provision in the regulations for granting a temporary or provisional license," the official said. As of last August, he said, "she has no license."