Unsafe, understaffed, out of meds? Controversy over conditions at new homes for Murray Center residents

News-DemocratSeptember 27, 2013 

Supporters made "Save Murray Center" signs during the fight to keep the facility open.

ZIA NIZAMI/BND

An attorney appointed to represent the interests of some residents from the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center says in a sworn statement that the private homes they're being sent to are unsafe and woefully understaffed.

The attorney, Stewart Freeman, says in his affidavit that he fears someone might even die in one of the privately-run homes.

Freeman says one of his clients who has been moved to a private facility suffered a seizure because the home ran out of medicine, and another was fed a store-bought nutrition drink for days because the home ran out of the doctor-prescribed nutrition that the resident is supposed to receive via feeding tube.

But the head of the state office that is responsible for safeguarding Illinoisans with developmental disabilities says in his own sworn statement that he, too, has visited the privately-run homes, and found former Murray residents who are living happily in well-run facilities.

Kevin Casey, the director of the state Department of Human Services' Division of Developmental Disabilities, says in an affidavit that he's visited former Murray Center residents who seem delighted in the smaller, privately-run homes.

"The individuals residing in the homes seemed quite comfortable and content in their new homes and appeared to enjoy the privacy and relative quiet in comparison to the constant activity and noise that is often present" in an institution, Casey wrote.

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit that attempts to block the state from closing the development center in Centralia obtained the affidavit from Freeman, and have filed it with the court. In a separate court action earlier this year, Freeman was appointed as a guardian to protect the interests of Murray Center residents who do not have family members or private guardians.

Freeman stated in the affidavit that he's made surprise visits to three of the privately-run homes, where 14 of his clients are already residing on a "pre-transitional" basis.

"Based on what I have seen during the course of my inspections, I have concerns about the placement and welfare of my wards that are unable to communicate and have such severe disabilities that they are vulnerable to abuse or neglect," Freeman wrote.

He added: "If the conditions I have seen and heard about exist now, what will happen to my wards two, three, five years from now after the scrutiny of the facilities has passed? I fear that severe abuse and maybe even a possible premature death could occur in the future if adequate oversight is not maintained."

Gov. Pat Quinn plans to close Murray Center later this year as part of a realignment of how the state cares for people with developmental disabilities.

The state contends that most people with developmental disabilities would have a better quality of life in private, smaller, community-based residential units, which hold four or so residents, rather than in institutions. The state also says placing residents in private centers is less expensive, about $120,000 per year versus about $239,000 per year at Murray Center. Murray supporters dispute the state's figures, and say the actual cost at Murray Center is about $142,000 per resident, per year.

The Murray Parent Association, a group of parents of Murray Center residents, is suing to block the closure. The group argues that some residents' disabilities are so profound that they cannot reside outside an institution.

Freeman, who also serves as the public defender in Clinton County, said in his affidavit that two former employees from one of the privately-run homes confided in him because he represented them in criminal cases. One of them was charged -- prior to working at the home -- with physically abusing a disabled person, Freeman said.

The other ex-employee told Freeman she once worked 38 days straight and was "literally delirious" toward the end, and had an emotional breakdown. She had pay stubs showing she had worked 140, 150 and even more than 180 hours during two-week periods.

That employee also told Freeman that the home ran out of the doctor-prescribed nutrition that was supposed to be given to one of Freeman's clients via a feeding tube. So the employee went to a store and bought some Ensure, which was fed to the client for a few days.

A supervisor for the homes said the two employees are simply disgruntled, Freeman noted.

Freeman said one of his clients suffered a seizure and had to be hospitalized because the home ran out of medication. The client went without seizure medication for three days, he said.

Freeman said the safety problems he discovered include unlocked medicine cabinets and staff members not knowing the locations of fire extinguishers. Staff members are generally paid less than $9 per hour and have only a few months or weeks of experience as caregivers, according to Freeman.

"Based upon what I have discovered to date, I do not have a high opinion of the (private facilities) and their ability to care for my medically-fragile clients and clients with behavioral issues," Freeman wrote in the affidavit.

Casey, the state official, noted that residents of Murray Center have experienced frequent injuries. "Most are minor, but given the population, there are often more serious injuries such as fractures," he wrote.

Casey said medication errors occur at privately-run homes and at institutions, including Murray Center, "where there have been serious enough errors to result in staff counseling or resignations."

Januari Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said the agency takes allegations such as Freeman's seriously, and has asked an independent, third party, Equip for Equality, to visit the homes and report back to DHS.

Smith said the transition of residents from Murray Center to private homes has been, and will continue to be, "careful and deliberate."

"After transition, each individual is visited weekly for the first eight weeks; then monthly for the remainder of the first year," Smith said. "In the second and subsequent years, they are visited quarterly."

Smith said operators of the private homes are required to conduct background checks on employees, and the employees are required to have 80 hours of on-the-job training and 40 hours of classroom instruction.

Karen Kelly, of O'Fallon, whose adult son resides at Murray Center, said reading Freeman's affidavit left her fuming.

"I'm just appalled. But I'm not shocked," Kelly said. "This is exactly the stuff that we said would happen. This is what happened at other places, when they closed state homes and put people in homes run by half-assed organizations."

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

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