The operators of a group home, where a fire killed 10 women last month, once tried to use a "forged" occupancy permit, violated minimum wage laws and neglected crucial training in fire safety and the dispensing of medication
From official records, interviews with staff members who worked at the home, mental health and D.C. labor officials, a detailed examination of the group home's practices shows:
The Volunteers of America (VOA), the charitable service group that ran the home for mental outpatients from St. Elizabeths Hospital, "forged" a required city occupancy permit last year, according to Arthur E. Scarpelli, deputy associate director of social service for St. Elizabeths. When confronted with the alleged forgery, VOA later obtained a valid permit, which was in effect at the time of the fire, authorities said.
VOA consistently violated minimum wage and overtime laws, according to city Labor Department officials. In March, VOA was ordered to pay more than $2,000 in back wages to 10 employes who worked at the home at 1715-17 Lamont Street NW, near the National Zoo, the officials said.
At least three of the outpatient residents allegedly worked regular an long hours in the kitchen and laundry room at the home in return for "gift" wages of 40 cents an hour, VOA staffers said. This practice also violated wage laws and was prohibited under St. Elizabeths' rules, city labor officials said.
VOA allegedly did not instruct employes how to operate the fire alarm system at the home, according to staffers.
The fire extinguisher that a VOA employe tried to use when the April 11 blaze broke out allegedly was empty. "We turned the wheel [on the extinguisher], but it was empty," said Denise Helton, the VOA counselor on duty the night of the fire.
Untrained and unlicensed VOA staffers allegedly administered hundreds of doses of potent, tranquilizing drugs to the 47 residents who lived at the home, according to staffers. "I'm shuddering at what you're telling me," said Scarpelli of St. Elizabeths, when informed of the staffers' allegations about medication dispensing procedures. "None of the rooming and boarding houses were allowed by law to administer medication. You have to be a RN [registered nurse] or above," he said.
The chief officer for VOA's national organization, Gen. J.F. McMahon, said the nonprofit service group would not respond to the allegations.
"We cannot, in all good conscience, respond to rumors, innuendos, statements by former or present employes or findings from examination of official documents," said McMahon in a letter delivered by the Hill & Knowlton Inc. public relations firm.
However, a Hill & Knowlton spokesman, Ernest Black, said in a brief telephone statement from New York that the allegedly falsified occupancy permit was "irrelevant," since VOA obtained a valid permit five months later.
The alleged forgery was submitted by VOA officials to Scarpelli on April 4, 1978, at a time when VOA was seeking St. Elizabeth's approval to continue housing the mental outpatients at the home.
VOA took over the home's operation in February of last year after two lawyers who work closely with VOA purchased the structure for $210,000 from Emma Taylor.
Many of the outpatient residents had lived in the home for years under Mrs. Taylor's supervision.
Scarpelli said he grew suspicious of the document tendered by VOA when he noticed its identifying number appeared to be lower than other permit numbers being issued at the time.
The document itself was a certificate of occupancy, the basic city permit that by law ensures the structural and fire-safety integrity of a building.
"I called downtown to confirm it," said Scarpelli. He said he learned from city licensing officials that VOA had not yet applied for an occupancy permit and that the identifying number on the permit had never been issued to VOA.
Robert Lewis, the current director of the D.C. Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections, said Friday that his records show that VOA did not apply for an occupancy permit until April 18, 1978, two weeks after the allegedly fraudulent permit was submitted to St. Elizabeths.
Lewis said he plans to follow up on the allegation this week. "It's a government document and falsifying a government does call for prosecution."
VOA was eventually granted an occupancy permit for the Lamont Street home last August. However, in the wake of last month's fire, the worst in the city's history, Mayor Marion Barry, his top aides and the city's chief building inspector have said the VOA should never received an occupancy permit because the building lacked a fire escape, fire doors and a sprinkler system.
At the time of the fire, city officials have noted that VOA was operating without a legal D.C. business license.
Two VOA counselors who worked at the Lamont Street home, Barbara Wood, 33, and Helton, the 24-year-old woman who was on duty the night of the fire, described in interviews last week a history of questionable practices at the home.
Helton was hired last November and was working a 17 hour shift when the fire broke out, the result of "careless use of smoking material" by one of the residents who wdrank coffee and paced the floor at night, according to fire officials.
Helton said that she had worked at least four 17-hour shifts in the two months before the fire.
The women said they were routinely expected to work overtime, but were never paid more than "straight time" rates. By January, enought VOA employes had complained to the D.C. Office of Labor Standards about wages that an investigation was ordered.
Richard R. Seideman, who is acting assistant director of the office, said the investigation revealed that VOA violated minimum wage and overtime laws on 10 of its employes. Even accounting for regular turnover, that number was high, since no more than seven employes were on the staff of the home at any given time during the 14 months VOA operated it.
"We instructed them [VOA] to pay $2,089.83 to 10 people and they forwarded us a check for the net amount and they [the employes] should be receiving their checks any day now," Seideman said.
He said no penalty would be imposed on VOA for the violation because first offenses are presumed not to be "willful" violations of the law.
However, he added, a second offense could result in referral of a case for prosecution, where penalties for conviction carry fines up to $10,000 and jail terms up to six months.
Seideman said he had not been aware of allegations that at least three of the outpatient residents of the home were assigned to different jobs for which they were paid far below the minimum wage.
"If those persons were employed of permitted to work...you have to pay them the minimum wage," said Seideman. He said the only exception would be for handicapped worker whose employers obtained a special labor certificate allowing salaries below the minimum wage.
"I know there have been no certificates [issued to VOA] because they would have to pass through my hands," he said.
In one instance described by the two staffers, two Lamont Street residents were employed by VOA as kitchen help. "They [VOA] needed someone to help out in the kitchen, and some of the residents needed the extra changed," said Wood.
"Those people would work their a-off," said Helton. "They would have to start as early as 5:30 [a.m.] and sometimes take until 10 [p.m.] to get it all done, because they would have to prepare things for the next day."
VOA employed a cook to supervise kitchen operations, but the staffers said the feeding of 47 residents three times a day required the additional dishwashing, mopping, table setting and food preparation help supplied by the two residents.
For their efforts, the two were allegedly paid $65 a month, the staffers said. VOA's ledger accounts show $1,630 paid out for "resident work" during the 14 months VOA was in charge.
The VOA staffers alleged that a third resident was allowed to clean much of the house. Earlier this year, that resident was allegedly assigned to do the laundry for the entire house. This included washing the bed linens, towels and dining linen for the 47 residents, VOA staffers alleged. In exchange, she was allowed to wash her personal laundry in the VOA washing machine in the basement of the home.
Upon hearing the allegations of residents work, Scarpelli said, "They cannot work our people. This has happened at other houses and has resulted in judgments [against the operators]." He said that under special arrangements, resident can hold jobs, but "they have to pay them a fair wage for the time worked."
The staffers who were hired to man the around-the-clock shifts at the home were told their job titles were "mental health counselors. But we were doing maid's work," said Wood.
Wood and Helton said they were never told where the manual fire alarm was located in the Lamont Street house or how activate it. Barbara Whitt, who was VOA's first supervisor at the house and who is married to James Whitt, VOA's executive director, told the staff that the house was "secured" by a fire alarm system, the staffers alleged.
"After she told me it was secured, I didn't worry," said Wood, who took "secured" to mean the alarm would go off automatically. "I didn't know where the alarm was," said Helton, who was on duty the night of the fire. "I never found out and never really paid attention to see where it was."
The alarm was pulled the night of the fire by a VOA maintenance man who was sleeping in the basement of the house. But Helton said that when she and one of the residents grabbed a fire extingusiher to douse the blaze, "it was empty."
Fire officials confirmed that an empty extinguisher was found near a couch where the fire started, but they said they could not determine whether the cyclinder was used on the blaze.
The two staffers alleged that a major point of friction with the staff was a mandatory requirement by VOA that staff member prepare and dispense hundreds of doses of medications for the 47 residents each day.
"I fussed about that," said Wood, "I was afraid because I was not experienced and that I might accidentally drop the pills in the wrong bottle and somebody might OD [overdose] on it.
"I kept telling her [the VOA supervisor, Whitt] I wasn't qualified and I wasn't the only one [who complained]," added Wood. "But Barbara [Whitt] said don't worry about it, we were covered."
Helton recalls her first sobering encounter with VOA's medication policy last Thanksgiving night, when she worked the 11:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift for the first time.
She said it was the duty of the night shift worker to prepare four trays of medication for the next day. Empty bottles on the trays were marked with each resident's name. The prescription bottles from which the medication was taken were kept in an unplugged and padlocked refrigerator in a small office.
"I was told to come in at 11:30 and I had no idea as to what to do," said Helton. "I called up one of the counselors [Wood] at home and i had her on the phone the whole time I was facing medication. Some of the resident knew their medication so, if you made a mistake, they could tell you.
"But some of them,if you put anything in their hand, they were just going to take it," she said.
"Luckily, I did it right," Helton added.
Helton said she worked from a master medication sheet that listed all of the residents' prescriptions. Additionally, a daily medication log had to be filled out to record what was administered to each resident.
Scarpelli said, "If we would have known that that type of record was being kept, I would have confronted Mr. Whitt-that's an invasion of privacy. They were keeping records on our patients without our permission or the patient's permission." He insisted that his social workers who visited the house were not aware of those alleged practices.
The VOA staffers said they operated under ironclad rules that required the copious log enteries.
"Everything was run like we were blind soldiers doing what we were told to do," said Helton. "We were not to question anything, just do it."
A medical official with the D.C. Department of Human Resources said group home workers could be certified to handle medication after special training. But, the official added, no training has been given to VOA's staffers.
The staff was also instructed to keep a running log of conversations with the residents. Wood and Helton said they were under orders not to allow St. Elizabeths' social workers to see the log entries.
Those entries varied from routine observations about residents' personal hygiene and daily behavior to more serious psychological assessments by staffers who were largely without training in professional counseling or social work.