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Nightmare for vulnerable: Unlicensed care homes in Georgia

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Posted: September 4, 2014 11:27 a.m.
Updated: September 4, 2014 11:21 a.m.
Nightmare for vulnerable: Unlicensed care homes in Georgia

State Sen. Renee Unterman


LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — The investigation of a South Georgia unlicensed personal care home began with the report of a resident of the facility breaking into a nearby home to get food.

Law enforcement officials later raided the care facility, called Uplift, which housed people with mental illness and disabilities.

Conditions were horrifying.

"All these people were hungry,'' said Morven Police Lt. Terry Griffin, according to a Valdosta Daily Times article. The facility was infested with insects, and there was no air conditioning.

State and local agencies helped transfer Uplift residents to other facilities.

"People started clapping in the breezeway, even crying. They were so happy to leave," Griffin said.

These relocations are becoming commonplace in Georgia. Since June, law enforcement and state officials have transferred a total of 55 people from 10 unlicensed personal care homes, including Uplift, members of a legislative committee were told Tuesday.

The state has seen an increase in complaints about alleged abuse of adults at such unlicensed facilities, state officials told the legislative Joint Study Committee on Emergency Relocation of Abused Adults, meeting in Lawrenceville.

"This issue we have to address,'' said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, citing "unbelievable conditions'' in some of the residences.

Residents of these facilities include seniors and people with mental illness and disabilities.

Out of the shadows

Unlicensed personal care homes have been a problem in Georgia for years. The recent rise in complaints about them is probably due to a combination of more cases of adult abuse and greater public awareness of the problem, experts say.

The motive for this crime is financial. Operators are able to obtain residents' benefits checks and other money, the panel was told.

"It's going to continue to grow because there is so much money in it,'' said Vernon Keenan, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation director.

Since June, for example, three law enforcement agencies have identified three facility operators who allegedly had stolen more than $790,000 in Social Security benefits, food stamps, Medicaid and veterans' benefits, partly through identity theft, officials said.

"People are seeing the ability to make money in providing substandard, horrible conditions,'' Kathy Floyd, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging, told Georgia Health News.

State officials cited conditions that include:
- A man with schizophrenia being whipped and burned for taking food from the kitchen of a facility,
- Locks on doors to keep people from leaving a residence,
- Eleven residents being kept in a basement of one location, and
- A resident kept in a storage shed with no running water or electricity.

The raided facility in Morven "had so (many) lice and insects in the house, (the residents) weren't allowed to take their clothing'' with them when they were removed to other facilities, Keenan said.

Georgia has about 1,800 licensed personal care homes, which provide food, lodging and some personal care services.

The number of complaints about unlicensed facilities rose from 253 in fiscal 2013 to 293 in fiscal 2014, which ended June 30.

"At least one-third of complaints are substantiated,'' said Mary Scruggs, the chief of health care facility regulation for the state Department of Community Health.

Illegal homes have been shut down across metro Atlanta and the state over the past two years.

Tougher laws but limited funds

This year's General Assembly passed a law to protect adults against abuse. The legislation toughened penalties for operating an unlicensed personal care home, raising a first offense involving abuse or neglect or exploitation to a felony.

In addition, state agencies, including the departments of Community Health, Human Services, and Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, are working together on this problem to a greater extent, along with the GBI and local law enforcement.

"I'm very impressed that these agencies have come together like this," state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a member of the study committee, told Georgia Health News.

But more financial resources are required to combat illegal operators, officials told the panel.

One factor is that public awareness is increasing, said James Bulot, the director of the Department of Human Services' Division of Aging Services. "It's going to create increased demand on law enforcement to react.''

Meanwhile, Adult Protective Services has had "quite a bit of turnover,'' said Barbara Pastirik, the manager of that unit. She added that protection workers currently have to handle many more cases at once than is recommended.

And the job of shutting down illegal homes is labor-intensive. Keenan said more than 40 people, in law enforcement and in social services agencies, were involved in the Morven investigation and moving of residents. Six people associated with the facility were arrested.

Relocating residents also is very expensive. The Legislature appropriated $260,000 this year for relocations, but that's not enough to handle all the costs, the panel was told.

Despite the limited resources, high workload and the need for additional education, Keenan said that among the states, "Georgia is on the forefront in looking at this issue.''

"We have made giant strides from where we started two years ago,'' Keenan said.

But he added, "This is going to require additional resources."

 

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