A state appeals court has, for the second time, allowed a South Florida assisted living facility for young adults with developmental disabilities to keep accepting clients. Health regulators have been trying to close the center for years. Members of one Pinellas County family protesting at the statehouse earlier this month say they don’t want other families to endure what they have.
On a recent Monday morning, Roxanna Jeffries and her son, Matthew, stood outside the Florida Capitol holding posters. They’d left their home in Clearwater at 3:30 that morning to drive to Tallahassee for a protest advertised on Facebook. But by the time the appointed hour arrives, they’re the only participants.
“It’s worth it. It’s worth…it’s worth those that don’t have a voice to know I’m here. And I’m gonna keep fighting for them a better a life,” Jeffries says.
Jeffries’s oldest son, Josh, is 19. He has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Until this spring, he lived at Hillandale, an assisted living facility in the Tampa area. But Jeffries said she had to remove Josh because he was being mistreated.
“He was physically abused, mentally abused, emotionally abused; he was attacked on several cases. I went to the administrator, didn’t get anything. We couldn’t get him to respond,” Jeffries says.
Hillandale is a 12-bedroom home catering to young adults with mental illness and developmental disorders. State records show a pattern of violence and abuse at the facility since it opened in 2005. That first year, the owners were temporarily prohibited from admitting new residents after an inspector with the state Agency for Health Care Administration, or AHCA, found they’d routinely admitted dangerous residents. Since then, documented incidents include the 2011 rape of a resident by a staffer. Another resident, who had a history of running away, was struck by a car and killed after she was left unsupervised and escaped. AHCA finally revoked Hillandale’s license this April. But it remains open and is accepting new residents while the owners appeal that decision.
Jeffries says that’s a double standard.
“If we abuse our children or the elderly, we’re standing in front of a judge, we’re in jail. We don’t get our kids back," she says. "These facilities can be fined, lose their license, still appeal and accept residents at the same time."
Twice, healthcare regulators have asked judges to stop new admissions, but the court has denied those requests, most recently on July 2.
Jeffries says she’s haunted by middle-of-the-night screaming phone calls from Josh’s friends who are still at Hillandale, and whom Josh thinks no one cares about.
State Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood) says many lawmakers are fighting to make things better, but they’re up against legislative gridlock.
“Nothing has gotten done in the last three years, despite the fact that the governor had a task force that recommended changes, the Senate had a study done, Miami-Dade had a grand jury report and the Miami Herald had an investigative report: 'Neglected to Death,'" Sobel says.
This year, Sobel sponsored a bill that would have made it more likely for problem facilities to close. The legislation would have required more training for workers and follow-up inspections for violators. And it would have created an online rating system, like the state already has for nursing homes, where clients’ families could leave comments.
“People would be able to pick and choose through the Internet which would be the best for their loved one,” Sobel says.
The bill passed out of the Senate unanimously, but never made it to the House floor. Sobel says assisted living facility owner associations fought the bill. They said it created burdensome regulations. But she thinks if the state can weed out the bad apples, the state’s 3,000 assisted living facilities will benefit from the boost in public confidence.
“What kind of message are we sending if we cannot provide for them in a safe environment? I think it hurts us economically because we aren’t providing the best kind of facilities,” Sobel says.
Assisted living facility administrators in Florida must have a high school diploma and take a 26-hour course followed by a written test.
Jeffries, whose son, Josh, lived at Hillandale, says she came to the Capitol to advocate for better staff training. She says she’ll return with her posters until she feels someone has heard her.
Lawyers for Hillandale and state regulators declined to comment, citing pending legal action.
Corrected: An earlier version of this story quoted Sobel as saying there are 30,000 assisted living facilities in Florida. In fact, there are about 3,000.