Although seven employees of a corporate provider have been found to be at fault in a case in which a developmentally disabled client nearly died in a group home after aspirating on a piece of cake, we hope the Baker administration, the Legislature, and the media will not treat this as an isolated case.
We understand that the Department of Developmental Services has issued an “action plan” in response to this incident, and the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee is reviewing documents regarding the matter.
The Essex County District Attorney has opened an investigation that could result in the lodging of criminal charges against one or more of the employees of the Beverly-based provider, Bass River, Inc.
Both The Boston Globe and The Salem News have reported (here and here) on the DDS investigation of the case, which found that inadequate care by the staff of the group home caused the 29-year-old man, Yianni Baglaneas, to contract severe pneumonia nearly a week after he reportedly aspirated on the piece of birthday cake on April 9.
The DDS report also alleged that a high-level Bass River employee attempted to obstruct the investigation by instructing group home staff not to cooperate with the investigation and by removing records from the residence.
On April 15, Yianni was admitted to Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester in critical condition, six days after aspirating on the cake, and then spent 11 days on a ventilator and a week in the Intensive Care Unit at Mass. General Hospital.
Despite the relatively quick response to the DDS report by the legislative committee and others, what we haven’t yet seen is evidence that those in administrative and other positions of authority understand or are concerned that Yianni’s case is a symptom of a larger problem. He is the victim of a dysfunctional system overseen and managed by the DDS that is rife with abuse and neglect and a disregard for the rights of developmentally disabled individuals and their families. It is also a system that has been subject to extensive and ongoing privatization.
On October 25, we emailed the chairs of the Children and Families Committee, urging them to hold hearings on those larger issues. Two days later, the chief of staff to Representative Kay Khan, the committee’s House chair, emailed back saying the committee chairs were taking “immediate action” and were requesting documentation from “a number of agencies in order to obtain more details about this serious incident.”
The email from Khan’s chief of staff said that as soon as Khan’s office had reviewed the documents, the chairs would “make a determination about pursuing next steps regarding the DDS group home system.”
We are glad that the committee chairs recognize the seriousness of Yianni’s case and that they are considering next steps regarding the group home system. At the same time, the chief of staff’s email doesn’t make clear that the chairs are cognizant that there is a system-wide problem involved here.
The chief of staff’s email states only that the committee chairs have requested documentation about Yianni’s particular case. I’m not sure how they get from there to being able to make a determination about next steps regarding the entire group home system.
It would seem that the committee should request a much broader set of documentation than the documents relating to just this one case. In our October 25 email, we offered to assist the committee in gathering information on the problems affecting the system as a whole. To date, the committee has not sought any further information or help from us.
Meanwhile, the Globe’s editorial page rejected an op-ed we submitted in which we similarly tried to place Yianni’s case in the context of the wider group home issues. It’s concerning that the most powerful media outlet in the state does not seem to be interested that there is a wider problem that potentially affects thousands of people in the DDS system.
As a nonprofit advocacy organization for persons with developmental disabilities and their families, we have followed this situation for many years. The association of increased privatization with poor oversight and abuse and neglect is not coincidental. The inadequate care and conditions in Yianni’s group home that led to his near-fatal pneumonia are all too common in group homes around the country.
In 2013, after The New York Times and The Hartford Courant both ran separate investigative series on abuse and neglect in group homes in their respective states, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut called for a federal investigation of deaths and injuries in privatized care. Unfortunately, such a comprehensive federal investigation has still not been undertaken.
It is important to place the present-day state of affairs within the DDS system in an historical context. Until the early 1990s, the system was dominated in Massachusetts and other states by large, poorly run institutions. Those facilities were grossly unsanitary and were essentially warehouses of abuse and neglect.
That all changed starting in the 1970s when federal courts around the country issued consent decrees in response to class-action lawsuits, and required substantial upgrades in care and conditions in the existing institutions. At that same time, a new system of smaller, privately run but state-funded group homes began to appear as residential options for many of the former residents of the larger institutions. A network of state-run group homes was created as well in Massachusetts.
During the past 20 years, the privatized group home system has overtaken and surpassed both the state-run group home network and the large facilities both in terms of state funding and number of residents. All but two of the large facilities have been closed in Massachusetts.
But the new system of thousands of dispersed group homes has its own set of structural problems. This system that replaced the large, centralized facilities has been much harder for the state to monitor with regard to care and conditions and with respect to the finances of the nonprofit agencies that directly operate the residences. In addition, the group home system operates today under a waiver of stringent federal Medicaid regulations that still govern the remaining large facilities.
The growth of the corporate provider system has also resulted in the creation of a largely hidden bureaucracy of highly paid executives of those nonprofit agencies. These executives have seen their own levels of compensation rise as the wages of direct-care staff have remained stagnant or failed to keep pace with inflation.
Due to the combination of poor oversight and and relatively low pay and training of direct-care staff, the privatized group-home system has for some time exhibited many of the warehouse-like characteristics of the former institutions prior to the 1980s. In addition to failing to address problems of abuse and neglect, the group-home system has not been able to provide promised openness and community integration. We hear about stories like Yianni’s all the time.
Yet, in Massachusetts, the private providers have established themselves as a powerful lobbying force on Beacon Hill and have essentially captured the system’s managerial and regulatory agency, DDS, which has continued to press for more and more privatization of services. The result today is a growing imbalance in state funding of DDS services. A priority has been placed by successive administrations and by the Legislature in Massachusetts on privatized care at the expense of state-run care.
In addition to worsening the problems of abuse and neglect, the funding imbalance has reduced the availability of state-run services as a choice to a growing number of people waiting for residential care and placements.
These issues need to be examined in a comprehensive way. That’s why we are calling for hearings by the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee on problems with privatized care and what needs to be done to address them.
We’re urging people to call Rep. Khan (617-722-2011) or Senator Joan Lovely (617-722-1230), Senate chair of the Children and Families Committee, to ask the committee to schedule hearings on the privatized DDS group home system in Massachusetts.