CHICAGO — One group home worker viciously cursed the disabled adults in her care when they didn't wash dishes to her satisfaction. Another dragged a disabled man by his ankles as he screamed in pain. Workers at another facility didn't notice when a resident wandered off and accidentally drowned in a pond.
Across Illinois last year, more than 130 cases of abuse and neglect were investigated and confirmed in group homes for adults, a 33 percent increase compared to 2006, according to government documents obtained by The Associated Press. The reports of mistreatment and outright cruelty at the hands of low-wage workers with scant supervision, illustrate a mostly overlooked problem in Illinois.
The numbers reinforce concerns about the treatment of group home residents as the alleged beating death of a disabled man at a home in eastern Illinois has led to proposed legislation that would tighten state oversight and allow the public to more easily see abuse and neglect reports. The bill has passed the Illinois House and is expected to be considered next week in the Senate.
State funded and privately operated, group homes rely heavily on low-paid workers — some moonlighting a second job — to care for an increasing number of adults with autism, mental retardation and other disabling problems.
One state official called these direct care providers the system's "backbone." They may also be the system's weakest link.
"The minimal wage makes it difficult to screen out some people who are less-than-savory characters," said Jim Lopresto, executive director of Southern Illinois Community Support Services, an agency that runs group homes. "We kiss a lot of frogs. At the rate of pay we're offering, that's what you run into."
Illinois law requires the workers to pass criminal background checks and have no prior history of abusing or neglecting people in their care. They must receive 40 hours of classroom training and 80 hours of training on the job. But the frustration of dealing with childish behavior from disabled adults takes a toll, experts say.
The investigative reports show that even trained workers sometimes snap. The 2010 substantiated abuse and neglect reports from the Office of Inspector General of the Illinois Department of Human Services, obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request, include these instances:
—A staffer at a group home run by a Springfield agency slept all day, leaving four mentally disabled men unsupervised. The men "were upset, mad or scared by this incident," the report states. "They could not wake him up, and they had to make their own food for lunch."
—A caregiver's neglect led to a wheelchair-bound woman falling 6 feet from a van lift. The worker, who first lied about the incident, has been fired from the Belleville-area group home.
—A worker regularly yelled foul language at residents of a DuQuoin-area group home when they didn't do the dishes her way. She was overheard saying, "Sometimes, I could just hit you."
—A caregiver in Chicago's western suburbs dragged a 47-year-old man with Down syndrome across the floor by his ankles when he refused to go to bed "while he screamed in pain and protest." The worker last had training to prevent abuse nine years earlier.
—Workers at a Joliet-area facility didn't notice when a 52-year-old mentally retarded woman disappeared. Her body was later found in an unmonitored pond on the facility's grounds, and her death was ruled an accidental drowning.
The problems could get worse. Expected state budget cuts could make it more difficult for agencies, mostly nonprofits paid by the state, to hire and retain qualified workers, said the leader of an Illinois association of group home operators.
"There are going to be situations where abuse and neglect happen," said Janet Stover, president and chief executive of the Illinois Association of Rehabilitation Facilities. "We do everything we possibly can to equip staff with all the tools they need to deal effectively with those situations. But we can't guarantee that it will never happen."
Illinois has 9,360 adults with developmental disabilities and another 359 adults with mental illness living in group homes, family homes and apartments run by more than 230 community agencies. The state paid nearly $340 million to group home operators last year.
The small size of group homes — roughly four to six residents — provides advantages over care in large private and state-run institutions and nursing homes. Group homes are cheaper. They offer residents more freedom and the chance to be part of a community. They are likely to be used more widely in Illinois after a preliminary settlement was reached this year in a class action lawsuit over the civil rights of adults with developmental disabilities.
An alleged beating earlier this year at a Graywood Foundation group home in eastern Illinois has exposed group homes to more scrutiny. Two former workers are charged with first degree murder in the January death of 42-year-old Paul McCann, a developmentally disabled man. His ribs were broken in 13 places, and he later died when his lungs filled with fluid.
McCann's death has led to proposed legislation, called "Paul's Law," that would tighten screening of workers, add triggers for license reviews of group home operators and give the public greater access to substantiated abuse and neglect reports.
State officials say there are already many levels of oversight protecting group home residents.Comment on this story
Independent agencies visit residents to check on their safety and advocate for their rights. State inspectors go to the homes as part of the license renewal process. An in-depth quality review looks at a random sample of residents each year, and complaints of abuse and neglect are investigated.
But hiring good workers may be the best way to protect residents.
"The most important thing a provider agency can do is make the best effort to hire the person who has the skills and interest and desire to serve people with developmental disabilities," said Michael Hurt, who helps oversee quality efforts at the Illinois Division of Developmental Disabilities. "Most providers would agree the folks giving that care are the backbone of what happens in agencies."
Carla K. Johnson can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson.
The bill is HB653.