Neglected to Death

Abuse-ridden ALF ordered to close

The Hillandale Assisted Living Facility, a Tampa Bay-area home where disabled young adults were raped, beaten, drugged and locked in a dank closet — one resident was struck by a car and killed — may be closing its doors on the orders of state health regulators.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration revoked Hillandale’s license in an order dated April 15. The facility had been operating without the ability to collect precious Medicaid dollars since June 13, 2011, when the state yanked the home’s status as a provider under the state and federal insurance program for needy and disabled Floridians. AHCA had hoped the loss of Medicaid dollars would starve out the home, but it found alternate state funding.

The April order, signed by AHCA Secretary Liz Dudek, concludes that Hillandale had consistently “failed to provide a safe and decent environment free from abuse and neglect and failed to treat its residents with consideration and respect.”

In addition to the closure, Hillandale’s owners, Gene and Amelia Cowles, face $21,000 in fines and fees. Under Florida law, the Cowles family may appeal Dudek’s order to the district court of appeal.

Hillandale, the order said, “cares for a very vulnerable segment of Florida’s population: young persons with mental and physical problems. [The home] has demonstrated that it cannot adequately care for such residents and safeguard them from harm. Thus, [it] should not longer be allowed to have its license.”

The Pasco County home had been the scene of much reported abuse, neglect and mayhem since it opened its doors in 2005, and advocates for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities had lobbied the state to close it. The seminal event occurred on May 14, 2011, when one of the home’s caregivers, who had a history of inappropriate contact with residents, was accused of having sex with a 26-year-old woman who suffers from autism and is cognitively impaired.

The man, 59-year-old Orlando Baez, was charged with sexual battery. The case remains open.

Augustine Smythe Weekley, Jr., the attorney for Hillandale’s owners, declined to discuss the case, except to “point out that the [administrative law judge] did not recommend revocation, but AHCA acted on its own to do so.” He added: “Appeal is being considered.”

The health care agency also declined to comment. In an email to the parents of the reported rape victim earlier this month, an assistant general counsel for AHCA, James H. Harris, wrote: “I know that this will not fix the harm done to your daughter, but perhaps it will prevent harm to others.”

Hillandale, whose owners also run two other ALFs in Tampa Bay, received extensive coverage as part of an award-winning series of stories in The Miami Herald, called Neglected to Death, which showed the state had allowed scores of problem homes to remain open — sometimes for years — despite a litany of abuses.

The final order provides 30 days for state health, social service and disability administrators to arrange for the “safe and orderly” transfer of the 20 or so Hillandale residents.

Annie Aponte of Safety Harbor, the mother of the reported rape victim, is haunted at the thought that Baez took pictures of the woman, in violation of federal privacy laws. “When I read that in the [court documents], that’s what also got me upset,” she said. “I don’t know what pictures he took — of her in the shower, in the bathroom, or when he was raping her? I don’t know. I want to know where they are and who has them. I want them.

“She’s my baby. She’ll always be my baby.”

Harold Aponte, the women’s father, called the home’s closure a shallow victory.

“By closing Hillandale down, a repeat offender is no longer a threat to our most vulnerable and, in many cases, helpless citizens,” Aponte said. “Unfortunately it took our daughter’s assault to make people listen.”

Virtually since its opening in 2005, administrators with the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, or APD, and advocates for people with disabilities and mental illness had warned the state health agency about problems at Hillandale and a related facility, Mapleway, near Clearwater.

Among their concerns: Caregivers had punished residents by throwing them into a small closet with a steel door; residents called it a cage. Both staff and other residents were employing illegal restraints - including wrestling takedowns and painful pressure points. Residents were on potentially dangerous tranquilizers, which one doctor working for APD likened to “chemical restraints.”

“There exists a pattern whereby every time there is an attempt to provide services to the clients at the ALF ... by reputable professionals, those providers note serious abuse taking place,” an APD psychologist wrote in a May 2010, memo. “AHCA is aware of these issues, but has not closed them down.”

The home’s administrator, John Ross, was at the center of the controversy: He claimed to have a PhD — a degree he received from Belford University, which the state Medicaid Fraud Control unit called “an online scam with dubious credentials.”

In her January 2013 recommended order, Administrative Law Judge Lynne A. Quimby-Pennock declared that Ross “has a high school diploma. He does not have any specialized training in health care, but has some training in health care administration.”

She recommended that Hillandale be fined $20,000 — but not shuttered.

But Dudek said the fine was not nearly enough and ordered the facility closed. She noted in her order that Hillandale had been cited for failing to have enough qualified staff to care for residents, had failed to report incidents in which residents were injured, had allowed a man “with a known propensity towards violence” to live at the home — even after he assaulted another resident, and had failed to act when Baez made improper advances toward the young woman he ultimately was accused of raping.

The evidence, Dudek wrote, “demonstrates that solely imposing a finewould not provide adequate protection to the health, safety and welfare” of the residents.”

Jim DeBeaugrine, the state’s top disability administrator during the Charlie Crist administration, remembers Hillandale – which housed many APD clients — as a sad, dangerous place his employees sought relentlessly to shut down.

“It was really sick, from how it was described to me,” said DeBeaugrine, now retired from state government. “What was described to me was extreme.”

DeBeaugrine praised Dudek for rejecting Quimby-Pennock’s recommendation of only a fine.

“It takes a little bit of gumption,” DeBeaugrine said, “to go beyond what the administrative hearing officer recommended.”

“She’s taken some initiative here, and thank goodness this place is finally coming to an end,” he added.

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