"Lack Of Oversight On Calif. Homes For Disabled?"
Reporting: Anna Werner
Nov 9, 2007 8:49 pm US/Pacific
They're people who need protection: disabled residents living in group homes in California. CBS 5 Investigates has uncovered questionable quality of care in some of those homes.
But now there are questions about whether the state of California is doing everything it can to guard residents' health and safety.
Many people with mental and physical disabilities literally can't speak for themselves, so the state is supposed to be their watchdog. Yet CBS 5 found a startling hole in regulations.
They're regulations intended to protect people like Robin Conte.
Robin's mother Jodie Smith said up until 3 years ago, her daughter lived in a group home run by a subsidiary of a national for-profit conglomerate called ResCare.
"Robin had an incredible spirit and she was a tough little cookie," Smith said.
And since she was one of the few residents who could speak, "she was the voice for the whole house," her mother said.
As a girl, Robin participated in Special Olympics. The fact that she was a quadriplegic never slowed her down.
"Her ultimate plan was to live independently," her mother said, "and we were working toward that for her."
But that plan stopped one day in 2004 when a worker at the group home took Robin into a bathroom to bathe her.
"She was being transferred into a shower chair, the staff person had tangled up her leg in the chair, they were in a big hurry, new staff person, and she had slid out of her arms and she had dropped her," Smith said.
Smith said the fall broke Robin's leg, yet reports show it was more than a day before she was taken to the hospital.
Her mother said she was "shocked. I was absolutely shocked."
After being taken back to the group home, Conte developed a bedsore and her mother said she tried to get her more medical care.
"I requested a wound specialist, I requested an airflow mattress... and it didn't happen," Smith said. "It was really getting serious."
Serious enough that Conte wound up back in the hospital.
"I felt so helpless for her," her mother said.
The family hired an attorney, Michael Thamer, to pursue a case against Rescare.
"She wanted them to know how much pain she was in, and she wanted them to know that she wasn't going to give up, and she wanted them to know that they didn't scare her any more," said Thamer.
But Thamer said as he started working on the case he discovered something that shocked him.
"There are no state regulations that the operators have to follow," Thamer said.
CBS 5 Investigates found its true: there's a glaring hole in the state's regulatory structure. We discovered regulations that should be in place to protect those vulnerable people with disabilities; serious medical conditions...are not.
In 1985, temporary regulations were put in place requiring direct care staff in group homes like Conte's to be trained as certified nurses' assistants.
"To require that they have at least a six week course and to require that they pass a test, I don't think that is asking too much, especially when the consequences of not being well trained can be so drastic like with what happened with my client Robin Conte," Thamer said.
Those regulations expired in 1989 and were supposed to be followed by permanent regulations. But CBS 5 discovered the most the state has done is write draft regulations back in 1991.
Sixteen years later there are still no regulations.
"That you are operating without any state regulations is just unconscionable," said Pat McGinnis, the head of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.
Especially since McGinnis said the people living in those group homes are so fragile.
"It's estimated that 90 percent of the population in these facilities are in wheelchairs, with very serious medical problems," McGinnis pointed out.
And McGinnis said the Department of Public Health should be held responsible.
"If in fact they're not going to do the oversight, if they're not going to survey these facilities, if they're not going to promulgate regulations and make sure that these facilities abide by the rules, then you've got to wonder, why are you there," McGinnis said.
We pointed out the lack of regulations to State Senator Elaine Alquist of San Jose.
"If something is law and you're supposed to do it, you're supposed to do it," Alquist said. She now plans to take action in January.
"I will have to write legislation that says DHS, you're going to have to create these regulations now, and they need to be created and they need to be enforced," Alquist said.
CBS 5 Investigates asked the Department of Public Health for an on-camera interview but after 6 weeks, the department turned down our request.
But Alquist said she'll get answers from the department.
"They'll have to talk with me", she said.
Any new regulations will come too late for Robin Conte. After her ordeal, she died in 2005.
But her mother said she hasn't given up the fight. Why?
"I owe it to my child", Smith said, "and everyone else's child that has a physical challenge to make it right and to speak up for them."
A few months after Cobin died, the family's lawsuit against ResCare was settled for an undisclosed amount. The company refused to talk to us about the case, claiming it is confidential.