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Colleen Lutkevich retires after 35 years with COFAR

June 7, 2021 11 comments

Colleen M. Lutkevich, who advocated for 35 years on behalf of COFAR and served as its unpaid executive director for more than two decades, officially retired this month from the organization.

When she was 25 years old and pregnant with her first child in 1985, she first went to work part-time as a secretary for COFAR, which had only been established a couple of years earlier.

“People organized COFAR for the sad reason of having a loved one with an intellectual disability,” Colleen said in a farewell message to the Board this past week. “But they channeled their sadness into advocacy and made a real difference in people’s lives, and in the DDS system.

“I feel good about this decision (to retire) and I know that no one is irreplaceable!” Colleen’s message continued. “I remain willing to offer help and advice as needed and I wish all of you the very best in continuing  your work with COFAR.” She is continuing to serve as president of the Wrentham Family Association, an affiliated organization to COFAR.

She also is continuing to work as a high school guidance counselor in the Easton public school system, and raised three children with her husband, Paul.

colleen-family-photo

Colleen Lutkevich (2nd from right) with members of her family at a Wrentham Developmental Center holiday party in 2012. With her are (from left) her father, John Sullivan; mother, Gladys Sullivan; and sisters, Laura Bradley, Jean Sullivan, and Joyce Wise.

Colleen followed in the footsteps of her father, John Sullivan, and her mother, Gladys, in advocating for better care for her sister, Jean, who has an intellectual disability. Jean has lived at the Wrentham Developmental Center for more than 60 years. 

John Sullivan, who was one of the founders of COFAR, was among the plaintiffs in Ricci v. Okin, the landmark federal lawsuit in the 1970s that led to major upgrades in care in the state facilities. John died in 2017 and Gladys died in 2016.

Johanna Smith, COFAR vice president, responded to Colleen, saying, “I am in awe of your wealth of knowledge and experience in this area, and your kind and patient wisdom in helping people deal with so many difficult and emotional situations.  You say that no one is irreplaceable, but you have been a wonderful and unique resource to so many people and I’m sure they would agree that your help was irreplaceable in their lives.” 

Anne Paulsen, a Board member and former member of the state Legislature from Belmont, wrote, “In the short time I have been associated with COFAR, I have learned that you are the linchpin of the organization.”

Joe Corrigan, a Board member, said, “COFAR is losing a lioness.” He said his sister Pat and late brother Jack “benefitted from Colleen’s devotion.” 

Wrote Board member Deb Cooksey, “You have dedicated countless years of your life to this cause, and I’m so grateful for your leadership. So many families with loved ones with ID are better off because of you.” 

Advocacy efforts began in the Ricci era

In recounting her start in working on behalf of the developmentally disabled, Colleen listed names of people, in addition to her parents, who were instrumental in the early days of COFAR and the Ricci case. She mentioned Phil Corrigan (Joe Corrigan’s father), Louise Johnson, Charlie Hart, Mary McTernan, George Mavridis, Richard Krant, Ed Orzechowski, Frank Every, and Ed Stefaniak, among others. 

It was those people, she said, who taught her how to navigate what is now the DDS system, and how to make the case for better care for its clients.

She said her father, in particular, served as an inspiration to her in her advocacy. “My dad worked and fought his whole life to make the system work for the least fortunate among us,” she said. “His advice was always, ‘never be afraid.’”

In the early 1980s, she said, everyone belonged to the Arc of Massachusetts, which her father had also helped to found.

But at the height of the Ricci litigation, a split developed in the Arc organization between those who wanted to close all congregate care facilities such as the former Fernald Center, and those, like Sullivan, Corrigan, and others, who believed the facilities should remain as an option for those needing the intensive care and services they provided.

In 1983, the pro-facility contingent broke away from the Arc and formed COFAR. Colleen later took the secretary job, but the organization was experiencing financial problems and was unable to pay even her nominal salary of about $7,500 a year.  So she continued to work without pay in the same position until 1995.

Although she ostensibly quit COFAR in 1995, Colleen came back to fill the then vacant executive director position in 1998. Once again, she accepted the position without pay, and continued to work as a volunteer executive director ever since.

Worked to stop involuntary placements

Colleen recalled that among the highlights of her work for COFAR were successful advocacy drives to prevent involuntary placements of persons with intellectual disabilities (ID) in mental health facilities and nursing homes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In the first case, she said, COFAR worked with legislators to pass a guardianship transfer statute, which stopped transfers of individuals with ID to mental health facilities against their families‘ will. The law required that an individual’s primary diagnosis be an intellectual disability if the individual was “dual-diagnosed” with both ID and a mental illness.

In the second case, Colleen worked with the then Governor’s Commission on Mental Retardation to prevent inappropriate placements of persons with ID in nursing homes. “We found that residents from facilities were being sent to nursing homes as community placements,” Colleen said. With the help of the Governor’s Commission, COFAR and other advocates “blew it wide open,” she said.

A subsequent lawsuit, which became known as Rolland v. Patrick, led to the cessation of the placements in nursing homes, and earned a number of residents the right to return to the Wrentham Developmental Center. Colleen said she was especially gratified when she found that one person, who had been moved back to Wrentham, started talking again, and was able to visit with his three brothers, all with intellectual disabilities and living in different DDS placements.

Process became more adversarial

In the past 10 to 15 years, Colleen said, she found that COFAR’s relationship with DDS and successive administrations changed. That change, from a relatively cooperative relationship to a more adversarial one, came as those administrations began closing Fernald and other remaining Intermediate Care Facilities (ICFs).

While six ICFs still remained in the state as of 2008, only two remain today – the Wrentham Developmental Center and the Hogan Regional Center.

More and more, Colleen said, she found herself fielding calls from family members living in the community-based group home system looking for help in dealing with problems of neglect and abuse. “We became more of a watchdog organization,” she said.

While DDS commissioners and other administration officials would, in the past, often attend COFAR meetings and gatherings, “we now get the runaround and few replies,” she said.

Through it all,  Colleen said, her personal mission remained unchanged.  “My view is that’s why we’re here. Let me help that family.”

Yet another corporate DDS provider is slapped by a state audit

June 3, 2021 3 comments

The Berkshire County Arc is one of the the latest in a series of corporate residential providers to the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) that have found themselves targets over the past two decades of the state auditor for misuse of state funds.

A few other examples include audits of Brockton Area Multi Services just this week; Human Service Options and Nonotuck Resource Associates in 2016; the May Institute in 2013; Crystal Springs in 2012; and Toward Independent Living and Learning in 2002.

From personal use by corporate executives of the Berkshire Arc’s credit cards to personal use of its frequent flyer airline miles, the problems cited in the Berkshire Arc audit sound almost monotonously familiar.

The Berkshire Arc and its lobbying affiliate, the Arc of Massachusetts, have hit back, arguing that many of the audit findings were technical in nature.

To be sure, the Berkshire Arc audit does have at least one finding that seems to imply a largely technical violation involving the financing of capital improvements and maintenance of residential and other properties. The Berkshire Arc shouldn’t have charged the state for that, the audit said, because the properties are technically owned by another nonprofit affiliated with the Berkshire Arc.

That violation seems technical because it seems that the Berkshire Arc’s clients did potentially benefit from the capital improvements.

But other findings about misuse of credit cards and airline miles were clearly about people in high-level management positions allegedly benefiting themselves personally. One would think that after decades of these kinds of audit findings, the heads of these organizations would finally put an end to these practices.

“Our audit makes clear that those in leadership fell short of meeting their oversight and fiduciary responsibilities,” State Auditor Suzanne Bump said in a press release.

But it seems these kinds of problems will likely continue to occur in a system that has seen care for persons with developmental disabilities largely handed over to corporate contractors to DDS. It’s a system in which DDS itself and other regulatory agencies appear to constantly fall short of their own oversight responsibilities.

The Berkshire Arc received over $25 million in funding in Fiscal Year 2019 from state agencies including DDS, the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, and the Commission for the Blind, according to the audit.

Among other problems cited by the audit, the Berkshire Arc allegedly used its credit cards to pay $124,247 in expenses that were non-reimbursable under its state contracts because they were inadequately documented, were not related to the organization’s social service program activities, or were luxury items otherwise prohibited by state regulations. Those items included valet parking, priority boarding, main-cabin extra seating on airlines, and alcohol.

The Berkshire Arc responded that the extra main-cabin seating was purchased so an individual with disabilities could attend a national self advocacy conference in 2018. But the audit stated that the supporting documentation that the Berkshire Arc provided indicated that the extra cabin seating was purchased by and for the organization’s chief operating officer, with no indication that it would be used by one of the clients.

The audit found that Kenneth Singer, the Berkshire Arc’s president and CEO, used credit card reward travel miles earned by the organization for his personal use in violation of state regulations and the organization’s own policy. The audit alleged that “at a minimum,” Singer redeemed miles earned by the Berkshire Arc on agency credit cards to pay for trips made for personal reasons to Hawaii and Mexico.

As a result of this issue, the audit stated, the Berkshire Arc “lost the opportunity to reduce its travel costs…(and) the money saved could have been used to provide additional services to its clients.”

The auditors also determined that Singer’s wife, Christine, who was working as a consultant to the Berkshire Arc, used the organization’s credit cards for $2,057 in trips, meals and gifts for a Berkshire Arc conference. Further, the audit noted, the Berkshire Arc charged its client funds accounts $43,192 in credit card purchases for which it did not have the required documentation.

In what seems to be the technical violation, the auditor said the Berkshire Arc paid for $487,341 in capital improvements to properties owned by a related party. The audit claimed those expenses were for assets that were not owned by Berkshire Arc and were therefore not program-related.

The Berkshire County Arc’s response was that its properties are “100% occupied and utilized by Berkshire County Arc for residential services, day services, programming, and operations.” It doesn’t appear that the audit questioned or contradicted that assertion.

The audit recommended, among other things, that the Berkshire Arc establish monitoring controls on all credit card expenses before payment, and that the organization “properly identify and correctly report all non-reimbursable expenses.”

We’re glad the state auditor is periodically reviewing the books of DDS providers, and making recommendations for correcting the deficiencies in financial management. The Berkshire Arc, in particular, also pledged to revamp some of its bookkeeping and management practices.

But what is needed is a more comprehensive review of the DDS system as a whole to address the patterns of faulty management that seem endemic to the system given that they keep coming up again and again in the audits. It is somewhat disappointing that these audits are done piecemeal. We have long called for a comprehensive investigation of the DDS system in Massachusetts.

If nothing else, the continuing series of piecemeal findings by the state auditor of mismanagement among providers shows just how much such an investigation is needed.

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