For months, advocates for disabled people tried to remove Robert Falcone from the Hillandale assisted-living facility, where the severely disabled man had repeatedly fallen, suffered black eyes and was being doped with tranquilizers.
But when the day finally arrived to transfer Falcone, 47, to a new home, residents angrily blocked the path of state agents after a staff member told a resident to “stall” the move, records show.
The disturbance that unfolded in April 2010 sparked yet another dispute between state agencies over a litany of problems at the Pasco County home -- one of a handful in Florida that care for people with severe disabilities and mental illness.
While the state Agency for Health Care Administration found no wrongdoing on the part of Hillandale staff, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities disagreed, saying the home had once again violated the rights of its residents.
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Since 2005, administrators with APD and advocates for a federally funded watchdog group have warned AHCA about problems at Hillandale and Mapleway, a related facility near Clearwater. Among their concerns: Caregivers had punished residents by throwing them into a small closet with a steel door. Both staff and other residents were employing illegal restraints -- including wrestling takedowns and painful pressure points. Residents were on potentially dangerous tranquilizers, which one doctor working for APD likened to “chemical restraints.’’
“There exists a pattern whereby every time there is an attempt to provide services to the clients at the ALF … by reputable professionals, those providers note serious abuse taking place,” APD psychologist Ken Winn wrote in a May 14, 2010, memo. “AHCA is aware of these issues, but has not closed them down.’’
At the center of the controversy: John Ross, the homes’ outspoken administrator, who claims on the Mapleway website to have a Ph.D.-- a degree he received from Belford University, which the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit called “an online scam with dubious credentials.’’ When deputies with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office rushed to Hillandale in 2007 after a resident phoned in a suicide threat, deputies threatened to charge Ross with obstruction for interfering with the investigation. He was never charged.
“I can be a smart-ass, but I’m usually only a smart-ass if I know I’m 100 percent correct,’’ Ross said in an interview. “It’s only because I’m addressing someone who doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about.’’
Originally funded by the disabilities agency to house people with mental retardation, cerebral palsy and autism, the Mapleway Communities homes were stripped of the housing dollars by APD in 2005 following a flurry of complaints from caseworkers, psychologists and advocates. The turmoil began as early as 2003, when a caregiver was fired after he brought a stun gun to Mapleway and told a resident, “don’t make me use this,” according to a state Department of Children & Families abuse report.
On March 31, 2005, the disabilities agency wrote a formal complaint to AHCA outlining “an alarming number of abuse reports, injuries, hospitalizations,’’ as well as “active attempts to cover up these harmful practices.’’ AHCA imposed a ban on new admissions to both Mapleway and Hillandale, but lifted the moratorium months later. It was the last major sanction imposed on the homes.
Two months later, a 49-year-old caregiver, Richard Langford, was charged with sexual battery. Authorities say he promised a disabled woman magic markers if she’d let him take her clothes off, and that when she refused, he pulled down her pants and forced himself on her. The victim -- described in a DCF record as “childlike’’ -- appeared for an interview with state agents clutching a stuffed animal.
In 2007, an AHCA inspector told a group of mental health and ALF officials that she would seek a revocation of Hillandale’s license, according to minutes of an Aug. 28 meeting, citing the death only days earlier of a 50-year-old man, Co Dang, who had wandered from Hillandale and was hit by a car.
DCF found that the mentally disabled man had repeatedly wandered from the home and been returned by law enforcement, concluding the home had failed to watch over him.
But the home was never disciplined for Co’s death. AHCA instead imposed a $1,000 fine in 2007 for a host of unrelated violations, including failing to deter violence among residents and “inadequate staffing.’’
AHCA says the Mapleway homes have been in compliance with state laws over the past four years. “There have been no violations since 2007 that required sanctions,’’ a spokeswoman said. “In addition, physicians, residents and coordinators have commented, during inspections, that they are very pleased with the services being offered in the facility.’’
But records from AHCA and other agencies arrive at a different conclusion.
Two days before Christmas in 2009, DCF received a report that, among other things, Falcone, who suffered from cerebral palsy and mental retardation, had suffered a black eye at Hillandale. A DCF nurse concluded Falcone had not hurt himself in a fall, as the ALF claimed, but had been beaten.
Since Falcone has moved to a new group home in Tampa Bay, his sister, Cindy Milburn, says he has fared much better.
Falcone has gained weight. He no longer drools or dozes from over-medication. The group home’s staff ensures that he calls his sister twice a week -- unlike at Hillandale, where she said he never returned her dozens of calls. He has suffered no new injuries. And, perhaps most important, she says: Staff members treat him with dignity when he misbehaves.
“When he goes into outbursts, the staff tell him he is entitled to do that in the privacy of his own room,’’ Milburn said. “They don’t restrain him…. I’m glad I moved him.”