Neglected to Death

Top lawmaker stunned by conditions at assisted-living facility

Just minutes after entering the troubled assisted-living facility, Florida Sen. Chris Smith took out his cellphone camera and began capturing the images: dirty hypodermic needles in a dresser drawer. Feces smeared on a bathroom floor. Electrical wires jutting from a hole in a wall. No sink in a bathroom, with an exposed pipe dripping water into a bucket.

In another room, rat droppings littered the floor.

After finishing a surprise inspection of Briarwood Manor in Lauderhill with state agents two weeks ago, the Democratic lawmaker said he placed an urgent call to one of the senate’s leading Republicans, Ronda Storms.

“I told her what I saw and how disgusted I was,’’ said Smith. “Ronda and I don’t always see eye to eye on a lot of issues,’’ but he said he told her, “We need to do something about this.’”

Shaken by his visit to the facility in the heart of his district, Smith said he will join Storms and other lawmakers to overhaul the troubled regulatory system that oversees Florida’s assisted-living facilities, saying the state needs to do more to protect “these vulnerable people.”

“We’re talking about human beings. I am amazed we are paying people to house human beings in such conditions. They’re mistreating those who don’t even know any better.’’

Smith’s visit capped two days of sweeps through the neighborhood by more than a half-dozen agencies that held unannounced inspections at four ALFs clustered in a small area known as Cannon Point.

Among the findings the agencies released Friday:

During the sweep, inspectors went to one of the homes, Shalom Manor, where caretakers just days earlier had found a 46-year-old resident in a chair, not breathing.

Instead of performing CPR or calling paramedics, one caregiver draped a sheet over his head while the other went to the kitchen to make breakfast, police reports state. Thirty-seven minutes later, caretakers called paramedics, who pronounced James Hazel dead. The state Department of Children & Families is investigating.

The inspections on May 19 and 20 by the Florida attorney general’s office, DCF, the Agency for Health Care Administration and others took place after a Miami Herald series, Neglected to Death, showed that state regulators were allowing dozens of homes to stay open despite dangerous and decrepit conditions.

The visit to Briarwood Manor turned up enough problems — including rodent droppings, nine structural violations and an interior described in a state report as “absolutely filthy from floor to ceiling” — to prompt Smith to fire off a letter to his Senate colleagues.

“I wouldn’t put my enemies in that place,’’ said Smith, adding that he will work with the senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee to overhaul the state’s oversight of ALFs, now surpassing nursing homes as the primary facilities for the elderly and mentally ill in Florida.

Reached in her district on Florida’s west coast Friday, Storm said she was heartened by Smith’s call after his visit to Cannon Point — home to the highest concentration of ALFs in the state.

“It was important to me that we have his interest and his experience on the ground,’’ said Storms, who is leading the initiative to reform Florida’s ALF law.

For Smith, the incoming Senate minority leader, the cluster of assisted-living facilities in his district was always a curiosity, but he said he never knew the dangers the homes posed to residents until The Herald’s series.

The newspaper found a 74-year-old resident was bound for more than six hours, the restraints pulled so tightly they ripped into her skin and killed her, a 71-year-old man with schizophrenia died from burns after he was left in a bathtub filled with scalding water and a 75-year-old Alzheimer’s patient was torn apart by an alligator after wandering from his ALF for the fourth time.

One of the places profiled in the stories was Briarwood — the most heavily fined facility in Florida — which has left dozens of residents with mental illness to fend for themselves in dangerous conditions. Twice, regulators could have moved to shutter the facility since 2007, but even after the home failed to pay thousands of dollars in fines for years, it was allowed to stay open.

Smith said he was riled after learning the 34-bed home gets hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars every year to house residents. “These are state-licensed facilities, and more than that, facilities the state is paying for,” said Smith. “And that’s just astonishing.”

In addition, The Herald obtained records that show some of the tax dollars provided to the home meant for residents — a $54-per-month stipend — weren’t ending up in their hands, forcing the Department of Elder Affairs to step in two years ago.

The home’s owner, Andy Subachan, did not return calls seeking comment.

Several state agencies are expected to continue investigating conditions at the homes in Cannon Point, including the suspicious death at Shalom Manor on May 12.

Not only did caretakers fail to call 911 for 37 minutes after discovering James Hazel’s lifeless body, but police are now investigating why medical records describing the care he received during his past two months have disappeared, reports state. Hazel suffered from diabetes and other serious health problems, but no autopsy was performed to determine how he died, police said.

Shalom Manor administrator Emmins Henry told The Herald she doesn’t know what happened to the records, but suggested that officers may have taken them on the morning Hazel died. However, a spokesperson for the Lauderhill Police Department said that wasn’t the case. “There would be no reason for them to do that,” said Capt. Constance Stanley.

Stanley was among a group of law enforcement officers and inspectors who returned to the neighborhood early Friday morning for another round of unannounced visits.

At Briarwood, inspectors once again turned up many of the same problems, including a cache of used hypodermic needles stashed in an open filing drawer and a 51-year-old man forced to sleep on a living room sofa because his sheets were infested with bedbugs.

“I don’t want to get bit no more,” Lewis Hill, lying on a cramped, black sofa with his feet dangling over the side, told The Herald.

Two weeks after his visit to the facility, Sen. Smith said he wasn’t surprised at the newest findings. “From the total lack of decency that I observed from my visit, I’m sad to say that I’m not shocked that there were still major violations,’’ he said.

WLRN-Miami Herald reporter Kenny Malone contributed to this report.