State Kept Mum on Conditions in Nonprofit Group Homes

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March 27, 2011; Source: Chicago Tribune | Questions are being asked in Illinois about whether a 42-year-old man would still be alive today if state officials had acted sooner on evidence it had for two years that developmentally disabled adults living in a network of nonprofit group homes were being abused.

It wasn't until Paul McCann's death last January, following an alleged assault by employees, that the state cut its annual $5 million funding to the Graywood Foundation's homes. However, according to a document the Associated Press obtained from a Freedom of Information request, state officials had known about problems in the group homes since 2009, a year after the death of another resident that was blamed on two staff members.

In his report, William Diggins, an investigations bureau chief in the Illinois Department of Human Services Office of Inspector General, described living conditions in the group homes as "totally unacceptable." Although the homes were subsequently placed under intense scrutiny, and they were prohibited from admitting new residents, families weren't told about the investigator's findings. The sister of Paul McCann, who died earlier this year from injuries, including ribs broken in 13 places, said she knew nothing about problems at the home. "We could have done something if we had really known what was going on," said McCann's sister Kathleen Slovick. "We should be able to get that information on group homes."

Illinois routinely places nursing home inspection reports online, but fails to make similar information available about group homes, which provide alternatives to institutional care for adults with disabilities. The AP reports that some 9,300 adults with developmental disabilities currently live in group homes, family homes and apartments run by more than 200 community agencies. Diggins, who wrote the 2009 memo, said his efforts to get the state to take action didn't stop with his investigation. The AP says he warned his superiors that Graywood was obstructing investigations and failing to follow recommendations in his memo.

State representative Greg Harris is backing legislation to make sure group home residents are better protected. His legislation would make more information available about group homes and require state regulators to intervene more quickly and aggressively when problems are uncovered. "We've clearly seen that the system failed the people who lived in the Graywood facilities," Harris said. "This case makes you heartsick to read about it."—Bruce Trachtenberg