After latest abuse case, Florida moves to close home for disabled

Carlton Palms
Carlton Palms Advoserv

W.H., a disabled man who has difficulty communicating, had a laceration, bruises and abrasions on his right temple, bruises and abrasions on his right shoulder, and a red, scabby injury to his left arm.

Two of his caregivers at the Carlton Palms Educational Center wrote in a report in April that the man had injured himself.

The video told a different story.

In the recording, a caregiver is seen pushing W.H. against a wall, throwing him to the floor, “shoving him into” a corner, choking him, and thrusting his elbow into W.H.’s head, a police report says. While the attack is occurring, police say, another caregiver turns his back to the abuse, deliberately ignoring the assault.

The abuse of the developmentally disabled man has prompted severe action by Florida disability administrators. The state Agency for Persons with Disabilities, or APD, is moving to close Carlton Palms, a chronically troubled facility where a 14-year-old Broward County girl died an agonizing death from dehydration — the result of a severe, but untreated, infection — in July 2013. The girl, Paige Lunsford, and the facility, had been the subject of a lengthy report in the Miami Herald.

Paige’s death marked the 140th Department of Children & Families neglect or abuse report involving the Lake County home since 2001 — there have been more reports since then — many of which have been substantiated by the state.

“APD’s number one goal is to do all we can to thoroughly serve the needs of Floridians with disabilities, said the agency’s director, Barbara Palmer. Palmer said APD is working closely with the home’s owner, Advoserv, “to ensure a smooth transition for its residents into the community.”

Following the attack on W.H. — the Herald is not identifying him to protect his privacy — the disabilities agency negotiated an agreement with Advoserv, the agency said in a statement. As part of the settlement, Advoserv has agreed to help the state transition about 200 current residents from the Lake County center to “smaller, home-like settings” closer to their families, the statement said.

“It is the right thing to do, to bring residents closer to their families, to smaller environments that are more like a family. But they need all the services that are critical and necessary for them to thrive,” Palmer told the Herald. “They deserve to thrive.”

“This is going to empower families to be closer to their loved ones, and it will make a big difference — not just for the individual’s life, but for the whole family.”

The settlement agreement, which is dated June 17, explicitly acknowledges “prior incidents of verified abuse and neglect over the last several years.”

As an antidote to those incidents, Advoserv agreed to allow the Department of Children and Families to “outpost” investigators for both child abuse and the abuse of disabled people during the months in which residents are being moved out.

The disabilities agency also will station a “monitoring team” at Carlton Palms until an independent group can be hired to ensure the safety of residents while the center is being closed. The third-party group also will “ensure that adequate staffing levels are maintained for resident health and safety.”

No new residents will be allowed to enter the center until it is shuttered, says the agreement, which was obtained by the Herald.

Federal regulators, Palmer said, require that states receiving Medicaid insurance dollars “move from larger, institutional-type settings to smaller, home-like settings by 2019.” Disability administrators began considering the closure of Carlton Palms last spring.

In March, a Carlton Palms supervisor, Gretchen Thwing, reviewed a “data sheet” containing notes about W.H.’s behavior when she became “suspicious,” said a report by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office obtained by the Herald. Thwing decided to review house surveillance video from the time when W.H.’s injuries occurred. She showed the video to her boss, who “felt there may be criminal conduct” by two employees recorded on the tape, the report said. The supervisors called the Sheriff’s Department.

On March 25, a detective subpoenaed the video. What it depicted prompted detectives to obtain arrest warrants for two men: Maurice Allen and David Parker, both of whom worked in the dorm where W.H. lived. Allen was charged with abuse of a disabled adult; Parker is charged with neglect of a disabled adult. Both men remain at large, according to records.

The warrant is active, said Lake County Sgt. Fred Jones. “If law enforcement makes any contact with them they will be arrested,” he said.

A report says the confrontation began when W.H. said something to Allen that appears to have set him off. “Allen walks over to [W.H.], pushing him against the wall with his body. This occurs several more times before [W.H.] is thrown to the floor with Allen on top of him.” Following that assault, W.H. called Allen an epithet, which resulted in Allen shoving W.H. into a corner.

Barbara Palmer, director of APD, said the agency is working closely with the home’s owner, Advoserv, “to ensure a smooth transition for its residents into the community.”

“Allen is then seen forcing [W.H.] against the wall with his hand around [W.H.’s] throat, followed by an elbow to [W.H.’s] head before taking him to the ground and getting on top of him,” the Sheriff’s Department report said.

The March incident followed several other reports of disabled children or adults being abused or neglected at the Mount Dora home. APD administrators had filed two administrative, or licensing, complaints against Carlton Palms — including an October 2012 complaint that initially sought a moratorium on admissions, citing “multiple acts of physical violence to the residents.”

Both of the administrative complaints were withdrawn with no penalties imposed.

Police have been to the facility frequently, in addition to the state abuse investigators.

In January 2012, a Carlton Palms caregiver reportedly ordered a disabled resident, R.G., who was making noises to “shut [his expletive] mouth” before he punched the man in the stomach. Another employee left the room rather than intervene, a complaint says. When the employee returned, the colleague was kicking and holding R.G. by the neck, the complaint said.

On April 18 of that year, a resident of one of the cottages told a Lake County deputy he saw a caregiver, Andre Mays, wrap his belt around his knuckles while he called a resident, R.T., “stupid.” The resident couldn’t see what happened next, but he “could hear the belt hitting” R.T. while the man pleaded with Mays to stop. “Don’t hit me!” R.T. screamed, an administrative complaint said.

Another facility staffer yelled at Mays to stop the beating, the witness said, “but never bothered to get out of her chair to help,” a police report claimed. Mays was charged with abuse of a disabled person, but later was acquitted.