Several former employes of a 104-bed group home for mentally ill persons in the District have charged that the patients were kept hungry, that untrained staff were told to give patients medicine and that the facility was infested by lice.
Caldwell House, which is licensed by the District as a community residential facility at 2 18th St. SE and houses former St. Elizabeths Hospital patients, has been cited by city inspectors over the years for a long list of health violations.
The D.C. Service Facility Regulation Administration, responsible for inspecting and licensing such facilities, has allowed the home to stay open despite the recurring deficiencies and a long history of complaints.
Joan Sutton of Bowie, owner and operator of Caldwell House and two other large group homes in the city, Harris House and Hope Village, did not return a reporter's phone calls to discuss specific allegations.
In recent interviews, Sutton said that she runs a "model program," that her homes "have never had a blemish" and that allegations are being made by disgruntled former employes who had been fired.
Sharon Green, a licensed practical nurse who worked at Caldwell House in 1981, said she and a janitor were the only staff at night to care for 90 to 100 residents.
"After the janitor left at 1 a.m. , I would lock myself in the office," Green said. "I was scared to make rounds, scared that someone would jump me."
Bernice Mitchell of Northeast Washington said she was a housekeeper at the home from 1981 to 1983 and saw employes grill meat that had turned green and cook spaghetti from a bag that mice had been in.
"It was sickening," Mitchell said of the food. "You wouldn't even feed it to the dogs."
Mitchell said officials of the home instructed her to give residents their medicines, even though she has no medical training.
"They said, 'Read the book with patients' medications and read the label on the bottle,' " she said.
A spokeswoman for the city regulatory administration said the agency is conducting an investigation of allegations about Sutton's homes. Care at the homes costs more than $500 a month per patient, most of it paid for through the U.S. Supplemental Security Income program, according to city officials.
WDVM-TV last week aired a series by reporter Mark Feldstein in which several former employes at Sutton's group homes alleged that menus and fire drill records were fabricated to fool city inspectors, that roaches and lice have crawled over patients, that medications were improperly administered and that residents lost weight because they were not fed enough. Sutton, in an interview with WDVM-TV, denied all the allegations, calling them "ridiculous."
Leonard Higgs of the Dixon Committee, which monitors placement of St. Elizabeths patients outside the hospital, said city agencies should have monitored the homes better.
The city should shut homes or halt admissions until health violations are corrected, he said.
But Higgs added, "If it weren't for those homes, some people wouldn't have a place to go."
Harold Thomas, spokesman for St. Elizabeths, said the hospital helps place patients but does not monitor their activities once they leave.
"Once they are discharged, we have no idea what happens to them," he said.
The hospital has 21 outpatients staying at Caldwell House and 22 outpatients at Hope Village, according to Thomas.
The hospital has no plans to try to remove them as a result of reports on conditions at the homes, he said.
"Caldwell House appears to be an appropriate placement for young, chronically ill males that nobody else wants," Thomas said.