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GBI head going after illegal care homes

The state’s top cop is aiming his agency at a persistent and largely unchecked crime in Georgia: the proliferation of unlicensed personal care homes that mistreat elderly and disabled people.

“We’re going after them,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “These places create an environment in which patients are criminally exploited. They are places of abuse. People are not receiving medical care. This is intolerable.”

Lawmakers, regulators and some police departments have tried to rein in illegal operators for years, but the hurdles are high. Shutting down a home requires coordinating several agencies, which has proved difficult to do. Also, many operators have learned to sidestep enforcement by simply moving residents to a new place, often in a different city or county.

Two recent busts highlight the dangers. A home in Brooks County in south Georgia locked its 10 elderly and mentally challenged residents in their rooms, depriving them of adequate food and medical care. Authorities say the place was so infested with flies, lice and bedbugs that people had to leave most of their clothing behind.

An unlicensed care home in Chamblee kept residents in sweltering rooms with standing water and dog feces on the floors, authorities said. The operator, Tabitha Lopez, 44, had moved her operation from Hall County, where she had become the target of a state investigation.

That’s a common tactic and big problem, Keenan said. “They’re leap-frogging ahead of the authorities.”

The AJC began scrutinizing personal care homes in 2012, finding that many homes operate outside the system, without a license. The paper reported cases of residents being beaten with belts and burned with curling irons, kept in basements with buckets for toilets, robbed of their public assistance and pension checks, and shuttled from home to home.

Also in 2012, state officials set out to crack down on illegal care homes. The Legislature passed a tougher law, the GBI trained scores of police on the issue, and social service agencies and police pledged better cooperation.

But illegal operations continue to multiply along with demand, as aging Baby Boomers search for affordable housing and care services, said Kathryn Lawler, manager of aging and health resources for the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The state’s Division of Healthcare Facility Regulation doesn’t pursue the owner or operator of an illegal home if it simply shuts down, although the agency has gotten more aggressive in issuing fines, officials said.

“Within the past several months, HFR has modified its process to immediately issue fines at the same time as it issues a Cease and Desist letter,” agency Director Mary Scruggs said in an email. “Again, the goal is to close the unlicensed facility and once this is accomplished, we generally do not pursue collection of fines from these unlicensed – and closed – facilities.”

In the past five years, the agency received 903 complaints of suspected unlicensed personal care homes, shut down 130 of them, issued 23 fines and collected one. In some cases, the places turned out to be boarding homes, which don’t provide care and don’t come under the agency’s purview.

As for the GBI, it has taken the lead on about eight busts over the past year, and it is participating in two task forces, one to create a protocol to shut down illegal care homes, and another to write a manual for district attorneys on how to convict the operators. The GBI is also co-sponsoring a training event in October for law officers and prosecutors.

Weeks ago, Keenan requested a list of known offenders from the Division of Healthcare Facility Regulation. He narrowed the list of 293 people to 30 of the worst offenders, operators that pop up again and again. He plans to engage local law enforcement to shut down those individuals.

Even as he wades in, Keenan says the GBI is not the long-term solution. It simply doesn’t have enough agents to keep the problem in check. That will take local police departments working with social service agencies on a sustained basis – something few departments have shown a stomach for.

Their reluctance is understandable: Until July 1, a first offense was a misdemeanor, so police had little incentive to invest the substantial resources necessary to make a bust and undertake the complex task of relocating residents.

Many prosecutors have felt the same way, said Cobb County DA Vic Reynolds. “In the grand scheme, it didn’t fit up very high,” Reynolds said.

His office recently scored a victory when an Austell woman pleaded guilty to 47 charges in connection with an unlicensed personal care home. Raequel Penny’s residents were kept in small rooms, provided inadequate food and medicine, and denied access to adequate toilet facilities. She also stole money from them.

She was sentenced to 10 years to serve in custody and 10 more on probation.

Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn acknowledged his department is on a steep learning curve about illegal care homes. Some operators are cunning enough to provide just enough services to fall outside the definition of a personal care home, he said. In addition, he said, some hospitals and other facilities release patients to care homes without ever checking whether they are legal.

And then there’s the challenge of relocating residents once a place is shut down. “There is no foster care system for the elderly,” Flynn noted.

Still, he feels the need to take action. “The alternative is sticking your head in the sand,” Flynn said. “Is it viable to ignore that people are suffering?”

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, hopes a new law will engage more law enforcement agencies. The law, which went into effect July 1, elevates the first offense to a felony in cases where there is also abuse, neglect or financial exploitation.

“Many operators looked at the misdemeanor as a cost of doing business,” Cooper said.

Even when local police are engaged, they often can’t handle all the issues that arise when a care home is shut down.

The recent case in Brooks County demonstrates just how much coordination and work are involved. There, authorities were tipped off to the operation of the illegal home when one of the residents escaped and broke into a neighbor’s home. He was discovered raiding the refrigerator.

GBI, which led the raid, marshalled 40 state and local representatives from Adult Protective Services, South Georgia Ambulance, Healthcare Facility Regulation, Brooks County Victim’s Assistance and the Southern Circuit District Attorney’s Office.

“There’s so much work involved,” said Steven Turner, a GBI agent who led the bust.

When authorities raided the home on June 19, they found the residents hungry and in frail health. Their finances were a mess. Authorities are still investigating residents’ claims that the operator, Tyrone Terrell, had taken their food stamps and Social Security payments.

Terrell and five workers were charged with operating a personal care home without a license and assault, battery, exploitation, abuse and neglect of a disabled person.

By the end of the raid, some residents were crying in happiness over their rescue. Some were applauding.

To complain about a suspected unlicensed personal care home, call Healthcare Facility Regulation at 404-657-5726 or 800-878-6442.Also, you can go to this link and scroll down on the page to “file a Complaint” to file a complaint online.

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