'House of horrors' for disabled might finally close, after years of violence and abuse

Despite its placid-looking setting, Carlton Palms has been plagued by violence and allegations of abuse.
Despite its placid-looking setting, Carlton Palms has been plagued by violence and allegations of abuse.

Florida disability administrators’ efforts to shut down a Central Florida institution that has been perennially plagued by abuse and violence drew a step closer this week as Carlton Palms’ operators announced plans to leave the state, and leaders moved to take over the home’s management.

In the state’s most concrete action in several years, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities went to court seeking what is called a “receivership” — the appointment of a new leadership team to oversee the home.

“We continue to work diligently to ensure the safe transition of residents from Carlton Palms Educational Center while holding Bellwether Behavioral Health accountable. Today’s action is a major milestone in our efforts to shut down the facility that has proven it does not have the best interest of our clients in mind,” APD Director Barbara Palmer said in a prepared statement.

Barbara Palmer, who heads the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, pledged the department will 'work diligently to ensure the safe transition of residents from Carlton Palms.'

In a letter Tuesday to the families of Carlton Palms’ residents, Palmer said Bellwether will “cease operations in Florida” on May 31. “APD will diligently provide oversight and monitoring of this facility as we work with you to transition your loved one to a new home,” Palmer wrote.

Carlton Palms’ spokesman, Brian Burgess, would not comment Thursday.

The state’s fitful efforts to either clean up or shut down Carlton Palms included an announcement two years ago that Bellwether would shutter the facility by March 2019. But in the ensuing months, the Mount Dora school and residence was beset by new spasms of violence both by staff and residents.

Among the incidents: One man was raped by another resident, a known sexual predator who was supposed to be under constant supervision. An employee reportedly saw another resident get raped, and failed to intervene or report the act. One resident reportedly was locked in a bathroom for hours, taunted and tortured by staff members. Another person was badly burned — records say by a caregiver who appeared to pour scalding water on the resident.

One resident, 26-year-old William Lamson, died March 1 under mysterious circumstances. Diagnosed with severe autism, Lamson was prone to episodes of self-injury, and early reports suggested Lamson died of head injuries sustained when he banged his head against a wall — an explanation that raised questions as Lamson was supposed to be wearing a protective helmet.

William Lamson died at Carlton Palms after banging his head repeatedly.

Lamson’s uncle, David Lamson-Keen, said it was his family’s “dream that this place be shut down, because it was a house of horrors there.”

So far, 58 residents have been moved from Carlton Palms. More than 100 remain there.

Despite Carlton Palms' long-troubled history, efforts to shut it down have been halting and fraught.

The Lake County institution occupies a unique niche in Florida: It provides beds and full-day programming to Floridians with both significant developmental disabilities and the often-severe behavioral impairments that can be associated with such disabilities. For many, Carlton Palms was the last stop on a journey that included failed stays at smaller, less-isolated and restrictive facilities.

With few — or no — options outside Carlton Palms, frantic family members sometimes defended the home’s operators fiercely, petrified that loved ones would have nowhere to go if the home closed.

Palmer’s letter Tuesday appears to be, in part, an attempt to calm those fears. “We recognize that change and navigating the unknown can be stressful,” she wrote. “APD will engage new management to operate the facility. Our first priority is the health, safety, and welfare of your loved ones at Carlton Palms until they make a safe transition to another location.”

On Thursday, disability administrators sought a judge’s order appointing a new operator, or “receiver,” to manage Carlton Palms during the months that the 100 or so current residents are moved to new homes. “We anticipate that the new company that will operate the facility will be in place soon and the facility will remain open while safe transitions continue as quickly as possible,” Palmer wrote to the residents’ families and guardians.

“The new company will continue to employ the current employees who are in good standing and will provide incentives for these employees to remain working at the facility until a safe transition can occur for all residents,” Palmer added.

In recent years, APD secured an agreed moratorium on new residents, insisted on the installation of extensive video monitoring, and brought in an outside monitoring and transition team.

Few, if any, of the home’s residents will transition into a large institution similar to Carlton Palms. The facility’s worst troubles coincided with a dramatic shift in federal disability policy, which now favors smaller group homes or other community settings over large, isolated, often rural institutions that were sometimes associated with resident abuse and neglect. As well, civil rights laws demand that people with disabilities be served in the “least restrictive” settings.