Despite a broadly worded state regulation that gives residents of state-funded facilities the right to be visited, a human services provider agency is upholding a directive barring a guardian of a developmentally disabled woman from entering her group home.
Yet, the Department of Developmental Services does not appear to be pushing the provider to rescind its months-long ban. Instead, the Department appears to have decided to ignore the fact that the ban exists.
The August directive from the provider, Toward Independent Living and Learning, Inc. (TILL), stated in writing that the guardian, Susan Fernstrom, “will not go into the residence” even to bring food or other items to her daughter, Holly. “Anything you need to deliver to the residence must be given to the staff or the manager and they will see that it is properly put away,” the directive stated.
In their most recent exchange about the situation, Susan emailed Jennifer Killeen, DDS area director, on May 4, stating that the ban was restricting her ability to serve as Holly’s guardian. In an email in response to Susan on May 8, however, Killeen did not address that concern or mention the ban.
Instead, Killeen’s email described the TILL directive as simply “calling for coordination and notice of any visits to the home…” As such, Killeen said, the directive was “reasonable and compliant with DDS regulations concerning visitation.” This was exactly the same language used by DDS Regional Director Kelly Lawless in an email to Susan in April regarding the TILL directive.
Killeen had also advised Susan in an email on May 2 to establish “regular discussions with TILL and the DDS Service Coordinator about your concerns.” But when Susan raised the issue of the ban in a phone call with Dafna Krouk-Gordon, TILL’s president, two days later, she said Krouk-Gordon flatly refused to rescind the ban.
It is abundantly clear that the TILL directive goes further than calling for coordination and notice of visits. It bans Susan outright from entering the home.
We have previously noted that we have heard of no evidence that Susan ever acted in a disruptive way either inside the home or in any other location. It appears that the only reason for TILL’s prohibition against her from entering the home and for a subsequent notice of eviction of Holly is that Susan pointed out deficiencies in the staff’s compliance with Holly’s medically necessary dietary restrictions and with conditions in the residence on a number of occasions.
DDS regulations, which give DDS clients the right to receive visitors, specifically state that family members and guardians shall be permitted private visits “to the maximum extent possible.”
The regulations add that clients and their family members and guardians must be allowed to meet “under circumstances that are conducive to friendships and relationships,” and that the location must be suitable “to confer on a confidential basis.”
Enforcement of the ban raises further questions
Enforcement of the ban on entering the home appears to be up to the discretion of the staff and to Krouk-Gordon. Susan said she was allowed three visits in Holly’s room in April, two of which were used to help Holly pack for an upcoming trip and to try on clothes.
Susan noted that not only was she not allowed in the kitchen in the three instances in which she was admitted to the house since August, she wasn’t even allowed in the living room with Holly. Her visits were confined to Holly’s bedroom. She said she has not been allowed for nearly a year into the basement where Holly keeps seasonal clothes and personal items.
In most instances since last August, Susan has been made to wait outside the house for Holly, even in the dead of winter. She said she has even been made to stand outside the house while signing paperwork involving Holly’s care.
As we have reported, in addition to having an intellectual disability, Holly has a serious genetic metabolic condition called galactosemia, which requires a diet free of galactose, a form of sugar found in milk and cheese. That diet must be strictly adhered in order to avoid complications including brain and kidney damage. Holly must also eat multiple servings of vegetables because she does not metabolize all the nutrients in her food.
Susan has in the past raised concerns that the group home staff was not following her instructions either in buying food for Holly or preparing and serving it to her. Her complaints appear to have led directly to the issuance of the directive banning her from the residence.
Susan said that in the phone call she had with Krouk-Gordon on May 4, Krouk-Gordon declined to discuss Susan’s concerns about Holly’s diet or other issues involving care and conditions in the group home.
Because Susan has only been provided sporadic access to the house since last August, she has been unable since then to determine what Holly is being fed. That has impeded her ability to function effectively as Holly’s guardian and to assure her health and wellbeing.
Krouk-Gordon has not returned phone calls or emails from COFAR for comment on the case.
Susan said said Holly’s dietician at Children’s Hospital had come to the house when Holly moved in, in June 2015, to help management and staff and to also explain why Holly’s diet was so important.
“During Fran’s (the dietician’s) presentation, she stressed to management and staff they should defer to me on Holly’s diet because I knew as much as she did about a galactose-free diet,” Susan wrote to us in an email. She added that she was involved in helping recruit subjects for a first-ever study on adults with galactosemia.
Susan said that to the extent the TILL directive has specified coordination of communication with TILL, the agency hasn’t followed the directive. For instance, Susan said she has not been able to get in contact with the group home’s current nutritionist.
“I’m very worried about what’s going in that house with her food,” Susan said. She said that while Holly is supposed to eat a lot of vegetables, she is concerned, based on Holly’s own reports to her, that she is not getting the food she needs.
During her May 4 phone call with Krouk-Gordon, Susan said Krouk-Gordon also wouldn’t say whether she would rescind the eviction notice for Holly, which she had also issued in apparent violation of DDS regulations. After only a short discussion, Susan said, Krouk-Gordon ended the phone conversation, saying, “‘Your time is up.'”
On April 24, DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder responded to an April 17 email I sent her regarding the TILL ban on entering the residence and a number of Susan’s other concerns. Ryder stated that DDS cannot comment on the specific matters I raised because that would violate client confidentiality. Ryder stated only that, “DDS has been working with the provider and families involved to address any issues and will continue to do so.”
On May 7, I emailed Ryder back, asking whether she could comment generally as to whether providers are permitted to ban guardians from access to residential facilities when there has been no demonstrated disruption of the facilities by those guardians. To date, Ryder has not responded to my query.
Tens of millions of dollars in government funding
As a recipient of state funding, TILL is obligated to comply with state law and DDS regulations.
TILL received $38.6 million in “government grants (contributions)” in Fiscal Year 2017, according to the organization’s IRS 990 form, although the form doesn’t specify which agency or agencies the funding came from. We are assuming the funding is primarily from DDS.
According to the IRS form, Krouk-Gordon received $321,772 in compensation as president of TILL in Fiscal 2017. Kevin Stock, TILL vice president, received $229,988 in total compensation.
I’ve checked back to Fiscal 2015 so far, and TILL does not appear to have filed the standard online Uniform Financial Report with the state that contractors are supposed to file. That report is supposed to show how much the agencies get in state funding from identified agencies.
I called the state Operational Services Division earlier this month to ask why TILL’s UFR reports don’t appear to contain required information. I haven’t received a call back.
TILL’s financial and business practices have in the past been the subject of controversy. A January 2002 report by the state auditor stated that TILL, under Krouk-Gordon’s management, had spent more than $4 million in state funds in “unallowable, undocumented, and questionable business activities.” We reported on this in The COFAR Voice in 2005.
In an email to Jennifer Killeen on May 9, which was copied to Commissioner Ryder, I urged DDS “to fully acknowledge the facts and the truth” about TILL’s treatment of Susan and Holly. In particular, I urged DDS to acknowledge the existence of the ban on Susan from entering the group home.
This is an important test for DDS, in our view. If the agency isn’t even willing to acknowledge the clear facts of the cases before it, it cannot effectively carry out its mission of supervising the care of the most vulnerable among us.