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Officials seek to learn how retirement home resident got into walk-in freezer

LA TImes
Robert Faturechi
November 12, 2010

The woman, 94, was hospitalized after being found in the cold storage locker at the upscale Silverado Senior Living in Calabasas. She is back 'safe and sound' and 'corrective action' has been taken against two employees, a facility official says.

How did a 94-year-old woman at an upscale Calabasas retirement home end up inside a freezer?

That's the question state investigators are trying to answer after an incident last month that left a resident at Silverado Senior Living alive but hospitalized.

Officials at the retirement home, where relatives pay upward of $70,000 a year to house their loved ones, are offering few details. The facility was in the national spotlight recently after an employee was convicted of physically abusing several residents, including a mute 78-year-old woman whose chest he stomped on and whom he body-slammed.

What is known about the latest incident comes from interviews with Silverado officials and records from the California Department of Social Services: On Oct. 28, employees at the facility could not find one of their roughly 60 residents, virtually all of whom suffer from dementia.

After a search of the grounds, the woman was "eventually" found standing inside the home's walk-in freezer, according to state records.

Mark Mostow, senior vice president at Silverado, declined to discuss details of the incident, saying the company is restricted by strict privacy guidelines.

He said the woman was sent to a hospital and is "back at the community safe and sound." Mostow declined to discuss what type of injuries she suffered, but said "corrective action" has been taken against two employees. He would not say how they were involved or whether they still work at the home.

Relatives identified the woman as Mollye Fischer but declined to discuss the incident.

That Fischer found herself in the freezer indicates several potential safety breaches, authorities said.

Residents at Silverado, who are in various stages of dementia, are supposed to be supervised by nurses and caregivers around the clock. The company touts its favorable employee-to-resident ratio and highly trained nurses.

Doors leading into the kitchen, and into the freezer itself, are required to be locked. But Mostow said that on the night in question, the lock leading into the kitchen was "not operational" and the padlock on the freezer door was hooked in, but open.

Mostow declined to specify how long Fischer was in the freezer, but said it's set at 5 degrees, with a running fan bringing the space to a deeper chill. It stores meats and other foods.

He said a person "couldn't last more than 30 minutes.... If an individual were in a walk-in freezer like that, they would only be in for 10 or 15 minutes safely."

Silverado reported the incident, as required, to the Department of Social Services, which is still investigating. Michael Weston, a spokesman for the agency, said action against facilities can range from a fine to closure.

Silverado officials said allegations of abuse or negligence at their facilities are handled promptly.

"In any situation we would absolutely investigate, and appropriate discipline would be carried out. So there's always an investigation and always appropriate recourse," Mostow said.

The freezer incident comes less than a year after Cesar Ulloa, a former caregiver at Silverado, was convicted of torture and elder abuse and sentenced to life in prison. In an emotional trial, co-workers recounted shocking assaults against residents, many of whom were too dementia-ridden to call for help.

In one case, a former employee said she saw Ulloa leap off a dresser and land with both knees on a man's belly. In another case, Ulloa was accused of using one wheelchair-bound resident's arm to hit another resident suffering from dementia, encouraging the two to fight.

The allegations were brought to light after the widow of a former resident received an anonymous phone call alerting her that her husband's death may have stemmed from abuse, not natural causes, as the family had believed.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies exhumed the man's body and discovered multiple broken bones, with one radiologist comparing the injuries to those of a person hit by a train. Prosecutors in that case said the facility was vulnerable to abuse: Caregivers took the floor with little training, and cameras were not installed in rooms.