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Mother, who was charged with abuse after giving son Tylenol and cough syrup, says he is being neglected and isolated in his group home

January 19, 2022 8 comments

Christine Davidson, who has been charged by the state with abuse after she gave her son prescribed cough syrup and Tylenol, says the real problems her son is facing include isolation and neglect in his group home.

We have joined Christine in expressing concern to the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) about conditions in the residence and a ban on home visits from her son John.

John Davidson is a resident of a group home in Waltham, which is run by WCI, Inc., a corporate provider to DDS. Christine contends that the conditions under which John is now living violate a number of DDS regulations referred to as “standards to promote dignity” (115 CMR 5 et seq.).

Christine is a co-guardian of her son. The other co-guardian, George Papastrat, is Christine’s nephew and lives in North Carolina.

Christine wants to take John back home with her, and John has repeatedly said he wants to come home. That is not being permitted, however. She said John is effectively being confined in his group home with virtually no activities.

As we noted in a recent blog post, we have raised numerous questions about the accuracy of a report written by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), which concluded that Christine abused her son after she gave him an “undetermined” amount of cough syrup and Tylenol last June. Since then, John has been subject to a prohibition on visits home based on the abuse finding.

Christine’s attorney, Thomas Frain, who is also COFAR’s president, has filed an appeal with DPPC of the abuse finding.

Last November, I emailed George Papastrat, John’s other co-guardian, with an explanation of our concerns about the DPPC investigation and its apparent bias against Christine. I have not recieved a reply to my message.

Only person left in the home during the day

Christine said she visited John in his group home yesterday (January 18), and found him sitting alone in the kitchen. She said the other three residents currently living in the home are being taken to day programs.

John no longer has a functioning day program, according to Christine. An Individual Support Plan (ISP) states that he lost his previous day program activities at Jewish Family Chai Works in Waltham in March 2020 because of COVID restrictions.

The ISP states that when the day program reopened on a limited basis in August 2020, John was not alowed to return to it. The ISP does not specify the reason he was not allowed to return.

Christine also said John’s physical therapy services, which he received after fracturing his leg outside his group home in 2019, have been discontinued. Yet, she said, he is still in need of those services.

Personal hygiene allegedly neglected

Christine said she often finds John’s bedroom and the bathroom in the group home to be dirty, and John is frequently unshaven and dirty when she visits him. She provided photographs of his bed, which show several damp spots that she said are urine.

She also sent a photo of what appears to be soiled toilet paper in a waste can in the bathroom. She said the toilet paper contained fecal matter.

Christine filed a complaint with DPPC on December 7 after finding Jonn sitting alone and naked on the floor of his bedroom, apparently after he slid off his wheelchair while under the care of a staff member. The complaint has been referred to the DDS area office for an administrative review, according to a letter sent by DDS to Christine on December 8.

As noted below, many of the conditions Christine described would appear to violate DDS “standards to promote dignity,” including the “opportunity to undergo typical developmental experiences.”

Christine said she believes John is declining physically and mentally in the group home and is severely depressed. “I don’t know if he’ll ever be the same person he was — energetic and engaging,” she said.

DDS doesn’t respond to concerns

On January 10, I sent an email to Joan Thompson, DDS area director, calling her attention to the apparent violations and asking that the Department investigate them.

Thompson responded the following day with a two-sentence email that did not appear to relate to my request. Thompson’s email stated the following:

After review of your request, you would need written authorization from both (co)guardians to release any information.  Without the written authorization, you do not have the authority to make such a request.

Thompson’s message wasn’t signed.

I reiterated my request in a second email on January 12 and copied Gail Gillespie, the DDS director for the Boston Metro Region. I haven’t received a response to that message from either Thompson or Gillespie.

Apparent violations of DDS regulations in group home

Christine said that after his hospitalization, John was kept for months at Tewksbury State Hospital, ostensibly for treatment of a leg injury from a fall outside his group home in 2019. But she said his leg actually got worse at Tewksbury, yet he was discharged to his group home where he now needs a wheelchair.

She said the group home staff does not appear to be encouraging John to get exercise. She added that John wants to get out of his wheelchair, but the staff are not encouraging him to do so or helping him.

When John was discharged from Tewksbury in November, the group home staff was supposed to develop a chart listing weekly activities for him. But Christine said no such chart has been developed for him.

We are concerned that this overall situation may violate a number of DDS standards to promote human dignity, including a number of the “general principles,” which state that services are supposed to be provided in a manner that promotes:

  • The opportunity to undergo typical developmental experiences, provided that the person’s safety and well-being are not unreasonably jeopardized,
  • The opportunity to engage in activities and styles of living which encourage and maintain the integration of the person in the community through individualized social and physical environments, and
  • Opportunities for daily recreational activity and physical exercise, as appropriate to the age and interests of the individual.

The apparent confinement in the group home against John’s stated wishes appears to violate additional DDS standards and other rights that are intended to promote or include:

  • Self-determination to the person’s fullest capacity,
  • Least restrictive care, and
  • The right to be visited and to visit others under circumstances that are conducive to friendships and relationships.

ISP specified activities 

John’s Individual Support Plans (ISPs) in both 2019 and 2020 discussed his enthusiasm for his day program at Chai Works. As noted, he lost that program in 2020.

John’s 2020 ISP stated that while at the day program, which he had attended since 2012, he participated in numerous activities including dance, yoga, and martial arts. He was also taken on community outings.

The 2020 ISP stated that after the day program was initially shut down in March 2020, John was able to participate in online groups connected with the program a couple of days a week for an hour or two at a time. Accoring to the ISP, John needed help logging in to the online sessions.

Christine said she was told at both Tewksbury State Hospital and at the group home that they were too short-staffed to help him log into the day program sessions. As a result, John has not been able to participate in his day program, even online, for at least the past six months, she said.

Additional conditions in group home

Christine also said that in addition to the problems with cleanliness in the home, she discovered that other residents’ laundry is repeatedly put in John’s dresser drawers even though all of his clothing is labeled.

The overall situation appears to violate the principle specifying “freedom from discomfort, distress, and deprivation which arise from an unresponsive and inhumane environment.” There also appears to be a violation of John’s additional right to “individual storage space for personal use.”

Further, according to Christine, John’s cell phones have repeatedly gone missing, first at Tewksbury and later at the group home. As a result, he is unable to make or receive calls directly from Christine or anyone else.

Christine said she has also been told not to call the group home after 6 p.m. All of that appears to violate the right of individuals to have “reasonable access to a telephone and opportunities to make and receive confidential calls…”

John’s 2020 ISP and an August 2020 staff memo noted that John liked to talk to his mother on the phone, so much so that a protocol was established to end the calls at 10 p.m.

DDS needs to change course

In my January 10 email to DDS Area Director Thompson, I requested that DDS revisit and reverse the prohibition placed on John’s visits home. As noted, I have not received a response to that email.

We are also requesting that the area office expand its review of Christine’s complaint in December after she found her son on the floor of his room. We are urging the Department to examine the overall conditions under which John is currently living and the potential violations of the Department’s regulatory standards.

Questions surround state’s abuse finding against mother who gave her son prescribed cough syrup and Tylenol

January 3, 2022 29 comments

Christine Davidson is known by her family and friends to be devoted to her 45-year-old son John, who has an intellectual disability and numerous medical issues.

“Christine is a dedicated mother who has steadfastly kept John as her number one priority,” Pat Diianni, a friend who has known Christine for nearly 40 years, wrote in a letter of support for her last year.

Pat said Christine has consistently worked over the years to ensure the best possible care for her son in the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) system.

Christine herself says John is “the focus of my life. Everyone knows that I’d go to any lengths for him.” By all accounts, John loves her equally, and has told his caregivers that he wants to be home with his mother.

Christine and John Davidson

State alleges abuse by mother and restricts contact with son

But the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) and DDS concluded in October that Christine abused John because she “more likely than not gave (him) an undetermined amount” of Tylenol and cough syrup with codeine while he was home with her for a weekend visit last June.

In a 20-page report, a DPPC investigator concluded that Christine also failed to provide prescribed breathing therapy support “causing (John) to lose consciousness” in the morning of June 21. The prescribed therapy was the use of a Bi-PAP breathing assistance machine at night.

Christine was unable to wake John up in the morning of June 21, and called 911. John was brought to the Newton Wellesley Hospital ER. He quickly recovered after being given oxygen.

The DPPC is a state agency that is charged with investigating abuse and neglect of adults under 60 with disabilities.

Following the DPPC investigation, DDS issued an “action plan” that recommended sharply curtailing contact between Christine and John. All visits to Christine’s home have been suspended, and all of Christine’s visits to the group home have to be scheduled and supervised, despite the fact that Christine is John’s co-guardian. John was not even allowed to go home to visit Christine at Christmas.

Questions about accuracy and completeness of DPPC report

But following a review of the DPPC report and related documents, and an interview of Christine,  COFAR is questioning the completeness and accuracy of DPPC’s investigation of the incident leading to John’s hospitalization.

Most importantly, both the cough syrup and Tylenol medications had been prescribed by John’s primary care doctor, according to Christine and to medical records, and Christine maintains that she has always followed the prescriptions.

There was no evidence presented in the DPPC report that Christine did not follow the prescribed doses in administering each medication to her son.

As for the failure to use the Bi-PAP machine, Christine says that such a machine wasn’t delivered to her house until June 22, the day after John’s episode of hypoxemia or low oxygen level. She also said she did not receive necessary training in how to use the machine. When she inquired of a group home staff member about receiving training, she said she was told there would be no opportunity for her to do that.

Christine said the machine was later removed from her home by a group home staff, and that she later saw the machine’s breathing mask on the floor of John’s room, dirty and apparently unused. She said when she brought that to the attention of the staff, they did not respond to her.

Christine’s son’s group home is run by WCI, a DDS provider.

Christine, who cooperated with the DPPC investigation, told the investigator she gave her son prescribed cough syrup over that weekend because he had a history of a chronic cough and “has a tendency to cough so much he can’t breathe.” She said she gave him Tylenol as prescribed for arthritis pain.

Following his hospitalization in June, John was admitted in early August to Tewksbury State Hospital due to continuing leg pain stemming from a fracture caused by a 2019 fall outside his group home. He was kept for months at Tewksbury State for unclear reasons, and was discharged back to his group home only at the end of November.

Since August, Christine and her partner, Carmine Tocco, have wanted John discharged home to them. John also strongly expressed his desire to the DPPC investigator to go home to his mother.

Christine and Carmine said they believe that Tewksbury State Hospital was not an appropriate setting for John, and said they have seen signs that he was neglected there and in his group home, and has suffered physical and emotional abuse.

In the 40 years of John’s life prior to his admission to the WCI group home in 2017, he had lived at home with his mother.

Mother lost sole guardianship last year

Christine said DDS petitioned in probate court in May of 2020 to remove her as her son’s sole guardian after she got into a dispute with the Department over the placement of her son in a new group home.

Christine engaged Tom Frain, who is also COFAR’s president, as her attorney, and was ultimately restored to full guardianship. Her nephew, George Papastrat, who lives in North Carolina, was later appointed as co-guardian, with the medical and residential decision making powers.

We are concerned that DDS and DPPC appear to be setting the stage to remove Christine as co-guardian. Frain assisted Christine in appealing the DPPC abuse finding.

Friends, colleagues, and family cite mother’s devotion to her son

Amelia Lawless, Christine’s sister, stated in a letter of support for Christine in June 2020, during her fight to regain her guardianship, that, “(John) and his mother are a real team – they cry, laugh, and work well together. You might say that they complete each other.”

That same month, Rachel Geller, a former behavioral specialist in the Waltham Public School District, noted in a letter that Christine had worked in the school district as a special education teacher, and described her as “enthusiastic, kind, and loving…There are many wonderful teachers. Ms. Davidson stood out,” Geller stated.

Geller added that, “I have found Ms. Davidson to be sincere, hard-working, diligent, and of high moral and ethical standards.”

Father Fred Mannara, who was Christine’s parish priest for 57 years, wrote that, “John has a person in his life, his mother, who knows him and shares his history and loves him dearly. John knows that he belongs.”

Denise Cerrati, another friend of Christine’s for more than 40 years, wrote that, “John is the remarkable, resilient young man he is because of his mother’s care and undying attention to his needs… It would be a great injustice to restrict John’s life in such a way as to not allow him to draw on the strength and love he has always known.”

Milestones in advocacy for John

A former Special Education teacher in the Waltham school system, Christine enrolled John in an Early Intervention program at the Shriver Center prior to preschool, and later enrolled him at the LABB Educational Collaborative from which he graduated in 1998.

Christine found a speech therapist and reading tutor for John when he was an adolescent. She arranged for swimming lessons for him and watched him win two gold medals in an 800-meter swimming event at the Special Olympics International Games in 1991.

Christine encouraged John’s love for dance; and John performed for several years at a local dance studio.

In addition, Christine arranged for John to work at Brandeis University in a paid job in maintenance that lasted for 13 years.  And she found a volunteer position for John with Chai Works in Waltham, a program for persons with developmental disabilities. “He was very proud of that job,” she said. “He never missed a day.”

John also helped Christine in campaigning for Joe Kennedy II in his run for Congress in her Waltham district in the late 1980s.

In 2009, Christine began working with a priest to arrange for a special dispensation to have John receive the sacrament of confirmation as an adult. He was confirmed in 2014.

Christine was also a frequent speaker at family events organized by the Greater Waltham Arc. The Arc sponsored the Brandeis job that John held, starting in 1998. When that job lost funding at Brandeis, Christine contacted Waltham city officials who were able to find the funding needed to keep the job going.

No conclusive cause determined for hypoxemia

Doctors at Newton Wellesley Hospital who were interviewed by DPPC did not appear to have provided the investigator with a conclusive cause of John’s episode of hypoxemia on June 21.  One doctor stated that John may actually have been aspirating when he was brought to the hospital, meaning he was actually choking on something.

We have seen a number of cases in which individuals have aspirated or choked on ingested objects for a period of a week or more before being taken to a hospital. Christine said she thinks it is possible that her son was aspirating on something he had ingested while at his group home before his visit home to her.

While the DPPC concluded that John’s hypoxemia was more likely than not caused by a combination of Tylenol, cough syrup, and lack of a Bi-PAP machine, the report specifically concluded that the amount of the two medications given to John was “undetermined.”

In an appeal filed with the DPPC on November 29 of the agency’s abuse finding, Attorney Frain stated that it is Christine’s position that “the preponderance of evidence does not support the conclusons reached by the investigation report.”

Questions about enlarged liver

One Newton Wellesley hospital official told the DPPC investigator that Christine’s son had an enlarged liver, which was likely caused by a drug toxicity. The official said, however, that John’s Tylenol levels were not elevated when he was examined at the hospital.

Nevertheless, the hospital official said that toxicity in John’s liver could be due to small amounts of Tyleol built up over time. The official stated, “I have every suspicion that (John) took too much Tylenol, but I wouldn’t go to court to testify on that.”

But given that Christine’s son had only been with her over the weekend of June 18 to June 21, when he was hospitalized, Christine said she thinks it is possible that any toxicity buildup in his liver from Tylenol use could have happened previously at the group home. The DPPC report did not mention that possibility.

Witness confirms John had chronic cough

An official from Brigham and Women’s Hospital confirmed to the DPPC investigator that John had had “a chronic intermittent cough for many years.” The hospital official also said that John’s “cough syrup prescription had not raised many concerns prior to latest hospitalization.” Christine said she knows of no concerns that were ever raised about it.

Charge that Christine didn’t know dosages lacks specifics

Much of the case for the DPPC’s abuse charge appears to rest on accounts by the unnamed Newton Wellesley Hospital personnel that Christine couldn’t remember the dosages of the cough syrup and Tylenol that she had given John.

But even if that were the case, Christine maintains it would not prove that she had given her son too much of those medications. She told the DPPC investigator that she has always followed the doctor’s prescriptions regarding medication that she has given her son.

Christine said that she volunteered information to the EMTs who answered her 911 call about the medications John was taking, and gave them a list of all of his medications. She said that she has been giving John his medications throughout his life, and has always followed the written prescriptions.

John’s cough syrup and Tylenol had been prescribed

John’s cough syrup and Tylenol had, in fact, been prescribed for him, according to medical records examined by COFAR.

Those medical records were apparently not reviewed by the DPPC investigator who indicated in the report that the only medical records reviewed were Newton Wellesley Hospital records and John’s Individual Support Plan. [DPPC regulations (Section 1(k) of 118 CMR 5.02) require “the review and obtaining of copies of all documents which are not plainly irrelevant to the matter under investigation.” (My emphasis.)]

According to the records reviewed by COFAR, Tylenol and Tussionex cough syrup containing Hydrocodone were prescribed for John going back as far as January 2020.

Frain stated in his appeal that the cough syrup with Hydrocodone had been prescribed for the past 15 years, and had been administered by Christine to John since that time without incident.

Frain also noted that the DPPC report did not make clear that there were actually two prescriptions for the cough syrup for John. One — Mucinex DM Max Strength — was used by the group home, and the other — Tussionex with Hydrocodone — was used by Christine.

Frain said the reason for the separate prescriptions was that no cough syrup with a narcotic could be safely stored or administered in the group home. But that confusion was used by the DPPC report, Frain said, “to insinuate that there was wrongdoing on Ms. (Christine) Davidson’s part.”

Bi-PAP machine was not used by the group home

The DPPC report stated that the Bi-PAP machine had been prescribed for John to use at night to help him breathe. John had been diagnosed with severe apnea, according to the report.

As noted, Christine said the Bi-PAP machine was not delivered to her home until after John’s hospitalization, and that the group home later removed it.

The report did note that while it appeared the group home did have a B-PAP machine for John, the staff rarely if ever used it. The Brigham and Woman’s Hospital official told the investigator that:

I’m not sure you can blame this (failure to use the Bi-PAP machine on (Christine). Some sleep doctor must have prescribed it years ago. (John’s) usage has been spotty forever…I don’t think the group home even used it…

John could not be awakened previously

In his appeal of the DPPC report, Frain noted that in two previous incidents in the months prior to June 21, John was found non-responsive. In those incidents, on February 17 and during the “April/May time frame,” John was in the care either of his group home or a medical provider. Yet no report of abuse was filed with DPPC or DDS.

In the February case, medical staff at the Mass General Infusion Center in Waltham noted in on a medical form that John was “very sleepy in infusion…Quite lethargic.”

The DPPC report did not mention either of those previous incidents, either or both of which Christine believes could have a bearing on the cause of the incident in June.

No reaction to Narcan

According to the DPPC report, when EMTs arrived at Christine’s home on June 21, after Christine found John unresponsive, they administered Narcan “without effect.” Narcan is a medication used to counteract decreased breathing in an opioid overdose.

The report didn’t discuss whether John’s lack of reaction to Narcan might rule out the cough syrup as a cause of his hypoxemia. Narcan will not have an effect if there is no opioid in a person’s system.

Disputed statements about leg injury and air mattress

Also in the DPPC report is a statement by John’s DDS service coordinator that John had previously broken his leg while in Christine’s care.

The report, however, stated that in a follow-up interview to “clarify” that charge, the service coordinator acknowledged that Christine’s son had broken his leg in December 2019 when he slipped and fell outside his group home after direct care staff failed to greet John as he arrived with a transportation provider. It is undisputed that John was in WCI’s care at the time, and not under his mother’s care.

The report further stated that the incident in which Christine’s son broke his leg was not reported to DPPC because “the incident was witnessed and no one appeared at fault.” The investigator didn’t question that apparent breach of DPPC’s reporting statute and regulations.

According to the report, John refractured his leg in February 2020, possibly while at Christine’s home. However, the report stated it could not be determined whether that second fracture was due to a fall or to failed hardware in his leg stemming from the repair of the first facture.

Christine and Carmine also dispute an apparently second-hand claim in the report, apparently by the service coordinator, that in February 2020, an unidentified person had seen John sitting on a deflated air mattress on the floor in her home. Christine and Carmine said that not only does her son have an upstairs bedroom with a bed in it, but they put a second bed into a downstairs bedroom for him because he was having trouble walking.

Christine said she has never had an air mattress in her home. Carmine sent us the photo below of Christine’s son’s downstairs bed.

John Davidson’s downstairs bed in Christine’s home. John’s DDS service coordinator implied to the DPPC that John had been forced to sleep on an air mattress.

The investigator acknowledged in her report that she had not visited Christine’s home, citing COVID restrictions.

DPPC report relied on negative speculation about personality

In addition to accounts from the unidentified Newton Wellesley Hospital personnel, assertions about Christine’s temperament were included in the report from John’s DDS service coordinator, a DDS program monitor, and a DDS area office nurse. Only one staff member of his group home was interviewed, and that interview does not appear to have been about Christine’s alleged behavior toward the group home staff.

The service coordinator, for instance, described Christine in the report as “crafty and manipulative.” No example of that is given.

COFAR has in the past found that in investigating allegations of abuse, DPPC and DDS have discounted information provided by family members of clients. In some cases, the agencies have made negative assertions or taken punitive or even retaliatory actions against family members seen as meddlesome or too aggressive in their advocacy for their loved ones. (See here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Assessed as frail and elderly

At least one of the Newton Wellesley Hospital personnel and Christine’s service coordinator described Christine to the DPPC investigator as “frail,” while the service coordinator also described her as “in her mid-70s and elderly.” The Newton Wellesley Hospital official also said Christine was using a wheelchair in the hospital.

Christine responded to us that she used a wheelchair temporarily in the hospital because she was recovering from back surgery at the time. She said she no longer uses a wheelchair. She added that she resents being characterized as frail, in particular. “It’s like calling someone fat or too skinny,” she said. “They don’t want me in the picture. They don’t want my involvement in John’s medical care.”

Staff actually rude to Christine

In her own contemporaneous handwritten notes, Christine wrote that on July 29, staff in John’s group home were “ rude” to her, and that one had “abruptly snatched snack from my hand.” She said she had brought the snack of yogurt and lemonade to give to John. She also wrote that the staff were giving him “no choice in (TV) channels.”

On July 30, she wrote that, “John’s bed, blanket, and pillow soaked with urine.”

In early August, she wrote in her notes that, “I would be remiss not to speak up for him — elderly and disabled have no voice.”

Christine praised staff member in notes

Despite the negative assessments of Christine’s relationship with the group home staff, her written notes from July 8, 2019, include praise for a staff member named Mohammed. In her notes, she stated after Mohammed’s name: “Humor attention to detail, kindness empathy, helped John shave.” Christine said Mohammed left the group home more than a year ago.

Visits with mother considered a negative

The DDS program monitor indicated to the DPPC investigator that both DDS and the provider thought Christine was visiting her son in his group home and taking him home for visits too often. “Weekend visits would turn into weeks,” the DDS official said. “(John) couldn’t gain a foothold in the group home.”

“We have been walking a fine line and have done everything we can do,” the DDS official said. (Christine) will always find a reason to bring (John) home.”

The DPPC report, however, includes no reasoning or discussion as to why frequent visits and contact with John’s mother would necessarily be bad for him. DDS regulations, in fact, support “least restrictive care” options, meaning options that honor the wishes of clients to interact with family, friends, and the greater community.

DDS regulations (115 CMR 5 et seq.) also state that “Arrangements shall be made for private visitation (of DDS clients) to the maximum extent possible.”

Report acknowledges son’s wish to return home

The service coordinator stated to the DPPC investigator that Christine and her “family attorney (Frain) have lost sight of (Christine’s  son’s) individual rights.”

Ironically, the DPPC investigator stated that when she interviewed John, he expressed a strong desire to go home from Tewksbury State Hospital to his mother. There was no discussion in the report about taking his wish into account.

Lack of contact, communication

Christine maintains that while John was at Tewksbury State Hospital, her contact with him was sharply constrained for unclear reasons. While she was allowed to visit him there, she said the visits were supervised and she was not allowed to ask him or the staff questions.

She also said John’s cell phone went missing almost immediately after his admission to Tewksbury, and she was unable to call him. She said the DPPC investigator never asked her about that situation.

Neglect alleged at Tewksbury Hospital

Christine and Carmine said that when they initially visited John at Tewksbury, he was wearing diapers with feces in them and hadn’t been shaved for at least a week. Also his glasses and cell phone were missing. They said he appeared at times to be drugged there, and his leg pain was continuing.

Christine believes John regressed regressed mentally and was depressed at Tewsksbury and is continuing to decline mentally and physically at his group home. She said he is now in a wheelchair and is incontinent. Prior to his hospitalization, she said, he was continent and able to walk with a cane.

DPPC should reverse abuse finding

We hope the DPPC reconsiders its finding of abuse against Christine for all of the reasons discussed above. We also hope that DDS reconsiders its restrictions imposed on contact between Christine and her son.  It appears to be very important to John – and witnesses have attested to this – that he be afforded the contact he desires with his mother.

We also think both DDS and DPPC should investigate the care and conditions under which John was kept at Tewksbury State Hospital. A similar investigation should be undertaken at the WCI group home.

Christine and Carmine believe that with adequate assistance from DDS and caregivers, they can care for John at home. “He will receive the love, care, and stimulation he needs that only we can provide if he is allowed to come back home,” Christine said. “Right now, I’m very concerned that he is progressing into a state of despair, which is the last stage of depression.”

We hope DDS seriously considers the option of returning John home to Christine.

Family doctor opposes DDS’s continuing effort to remove mother as co-guardian of her son

November 16, 2021 8 comments

The primary care doctor for the past eight years of a man with an intellectual disability is voicing opposition to a continuing effort by the state to remove the man’s mother as his co-guardian.

For more than a year, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) has, for unclear reasons, been seeking the removal in probate court of Cindy Alemesis as co-guardian of her son Nick. That is despite the fact that Cindy appears to have saved her son’s life in 2018.

In a letter intended to be submitted to the probate court, Zaheer Ahmed, a doctor of internal medicine based in Lowell, said he has “witnessed how Cindy cares for Nicholas over the years.

“She (Cindy) is very active in his care, concerned for his well-being, makes sure he does not miss medical appointments, and has always acted in the best interest of her son,” Dr. Ahmed wrote in the letter, dated November 9. He added, “I am confident that removing Cindy as co-guardian of her son will not be in the best interest of Nicholas.”

Cindy was the first to notice how ill her son was in December 2018, and got him to a hospital for lifesaving treatment after his group home staff missed a critical medical appointment for him with Dr. Ahmed.

Nick, who is 29, has a mild intellectual disability, and was born with hydrocephalus, a condition in which there is excess spinal fluid in his brain. He has a shunt in his brain that drains the fluid.

Staff in Nick’s group home in Dracut failed to take him for a scheduled morning ultrasound appointment with Dr. Ahmed on December 19 of 2018. The ultrasound would likely have shown that Nick’s brain shunt was leaking spinal fluid into his stomach.

DDS’s only stated reason in its petition for Cindy’s removal, which was filed in October 2020, was that she had made decisions that were not in her son’s best interest. The Department’s petition did not say what those decisions were.

Nick and his mother, Cindy Alemesis

Eight months at Mass. General Hospital

In a previous letter, which Dr. Ahmed wrote following Nick’s hospitalization in 2018, he stated that he had examined Nick on December 17 of that year, two days before Nick fell ill.

During the December 17, 2018, visit, Dr. Ahmed scheduled an ultrasound of Nick’s abdomen for two days later — December 19 at 10 a.m. Dr. Ahmed’s letter added that, “the patient and care worker were both informed of (the) appointment before leaving the office on that date.”  However, Dr. Ahmed said Nick didn’t show up for the December 19 appointment, and the ultrasound had to be rescheduled for December 21.

However, Nick fell ill during a church service in the evening of December 19. During the ride back home in a church van, Cindy insisted that Nick be taken to Lowell General Hospital. There, doctors found that the shunt was leaking spinal fluid into his body. Cindy didn’t know at the time that the ultrasound appointment had been missed.

Nick got sepsis from the leaked fluid, and was transferred to Mass. General Hospital. He remained there for eight months during which he underwent multiple brain operations and other procedures. Cindy was at his bedside for much of that time.

Staff missed medical appointments

After Nick’s recovery and release from the hospital in July 2019, Cindy  regularly complained that staff in the group home, run by LifeLinks, a provider to DDS, were continuing to miss medical and dental appointments for him.

In his November 9 letter in the case, Dr. Ahmed stated that “Nicholas has missed doctors appointments. Cindy notices the missed appointments and advocates for her son.”

Cindy filed a complaint in October 2020 with the Disabled Persons Protection Commisson (DPPC), alleging that the group home was continuing to miss medical appoints for her son. But DPPC screened out that complaint as ineligible for an abuse investigation, and instead referred it to DDS for an “administrative review.”

The DPPC intake form stated that Cindy’s complaint was screened out because Nick had not suffered a serious physical or emotional injury. However, that same DPPC intake report acknowledged that one of the alleged missed appointments had led to Nick’s hospitalization for eight months.

Cindy said that during the past year, her contact with her son has remained sharply restricted by DDS and the provider.

DDS guardianship removal petition raises question of retaliation

In 2019, Cindy had sought to remove the other appointed co-guardian for Nick. That co-guardian is paid by DDS, according to DDS records. Cindy maintains that the other co-guardian has been uninvolved in Nick’s care and lives in Florda. Cindy’s effort in court to remove the other co-guardian was unsuccessful.

That previous court battle, however, raises a question whether the current effort by DDS to remove Cindy as co-guardian is being done in retaliation.

A pre-trial conference in the case has been scheduled for December 15 by Probate Court Judge Melanie Gargas.

We are continuing to advocate on behalf of Cindy, and we intend to join with Dr. Ahmed in stating to Judge Gargas that Cindy has always acted in her son’s best interest and should not be removed as his co-guardian.

As we have noted in the past, this case fits a pattern in which DDS and providers have taken a variety of punitive and retaliatory actions against family members and guardians when they are seen as troublesome or meddlesome in advocating for adequate care for their loved ones in the system.

It is unfortunate that DDS has dragged out this case as long as it has. The Department’s effort to remove Cindy as her son’s guardian and the restrictions placed on her contact with her son have placed unimaginable stress on her. Those restrictions have also hampered Cindy’s efforts to advocate for the best possible care for Nick.

We urge DDS to drop its effort to push Cindy out of her son’s life, and to begin to work with Cindy to rectify the problems she has identified with her son’s care in his group home.

 

 

 

Video has a controversial and disturbing, but important message about autism

October 8, 2021 4 comments

Several advocacy organizations for people with autism have produced a disturbing video that conveys an important message.

The message, which is actually controversial, is that autism can be a debilitating condition for some people. Contrary to what has become a politically popular ideology, there are people with developmental disabilities who cannot function in mainstream society.

The video, sponsored by Act Now for Severe Autism, the VOR, the National Council on Severe Autism (NCSA), ICF Advocates for Choice, and other organizations, displays severe autistic behavior in graphic detail, and therefore may be difficult for some people to watch.

Many people, however, may not be aware that autism is a “spectrum disorder,” which the Autism Research Institute (ARI) describes as appearing “in a range of forms and levels of severity.”

The video shows children with very severe autism engaging in violent behavior, mainly against themselves. They scream and hit themselves repeatedly in the head, or bang their heads against hard objects – hard enough to cause serious injuries such as detached retinas. They physically attack caregivers and family members, leaving them injured as well.

It is difficult to watch, but videos like this are necessary to convey an inconvenient truth about developmental disabilities to the public and to policy makers and journalists, and even to misguided activists for the disabled. Many of these policy makers and activists have promoted the mistaken ideology that every individual has unlimited potential for achievement in mainstream society, and that autism is not even a disability.

As the NCSA stated in a letter to The New York Times, this viewpoint even led one author to advise parents of children with autism that their children are “perfect.”

And as noted below, this ideology has been associated with the closure and privatization of congregate care facilities for persons with developmental disabilities and with efforts to end guardianship of those persons by family members.

But as Lee Elizabeth Wachtel, medical director of the Neurobehavioral Unit at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, wrote:

When an autistic child has permanently blinded himself from self-injury, broken his teacher’s arm, or swallowed multiple toothbrushes and required emergency surgery, there is nothing perfect or magnificent about it, and it must be remedied.

What the video is getting at, in our view, is the importance of distinguishing between different degrees of disability in setting policy for people with disabilities.

We think the failure to make those distinctions is what is in common among the movements to further deinstitutionalize and privatize services to the disabled, end guardianship, and close sheltered workshops, among other programs and services.

Those movements have had a major impact, causing policy makers and the media to overlook the needs and, in some cases, even the existence of people with the most severe levels of autism and other disabilities.

Attacks on guardianship

The failure to recognize different levels of disability is behind a growing movement to replace guardianship with Supported Decision Making (SDM). SDM is an arrangement in which individual guardians are replaced by teams or “network supporters,” who enter into written agreements with disabled individuals to “help them make decisions” about their care, finances, and living arrangements, and in other areas.

In typical fashion, SDM bills currently pending in the Massachusetts Legislature (H.272 and S.124) avoid the question whether everyone is really capable of making their own decisions in those very important areas. SDM proponents don’t appear to recognize that there are some individuals who do not have the cognitive skills necessary to make reasonable decisions. Those people need guardians – preferably guardians who are family members.

It should be clear from the video on severe autism behaviors that the children engaging in those self-injurious actions are not in a position, and may never be in a position, to be able to make their own life choices.

Yet one of those SDM- promoting groups – the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network – states on its website that:

People with disabilities usually get put under guardianship because other people think we can’t make choices. This is bad. People with disabilities want to keep the right to make our own choices.

Integrated employment

The ideology that everyone can function in mainstream society led to the closures of all remaining sheltered workshops in the state in 2016.

The charge was that the workshops limited the potential of the clients by keeping them out of the mainstream workforce. But the result has been that hundreds if not thousands of clients of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) have been left in DDS day programs with little or nothing to replace the work opportunities they previously had.

For a potentially significant number of DDS clients, mainstream work settings have never been a viable option. Those persons aren’t able to function in those settings or don’t desire to do so.

It’s all about money and privatization

The ideological position that the community-based system of care is working perfectly for everyone fits with a decades-long push by successive administrations in Massachusetts and corporate providers for more privatization of the DDS system. According to the ideology, all persons with developmental disabilities can reach their full potential in the community system, unlimited by institutional constraints.

But as the video narrator notes, people with severe autism need “a continuum of care that includes intensive and specialized services that are usually provided in disability-specific educational, vocational, and residential settings.”

As the narrator says, parents of persons with severe autism are looking for a “seat at the table” when it comes to setting policy for caring for persons with developmental disabilities. They want policy makers to recognize that given the wide range in the severity of autism and other developmental disabilities, one-sized policies don’t fit all.

The Britney Spears case is wrongly being used to attack guardianships of persons with developmental disabilities

September 7, 2021 7 comments

In a recent article published in CommonWealth magazine, we discuss the misguided use by many activists of Britney Spears’ controversial guardianship case to discredit guardianship arrangements in general.

As we point out in our article, guardianship is under attack, and the Britney Spears case is wrongly being used to imply that all guardianship arrangements are abusive or exploitative.

We think Spears’ experience is also being used to advocate for legislation that could make it more difficult for family members to become or remain as guardians of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). In our experience, family members need to have guardianship to ensure they are consulted in the delivery of care and services to their loved ones.

But former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and former Secretary of Elder Affairs Paul Lanzikos appear to be using the Spears case to push for bills that might limit those family guardianship rights. Citing Spears’ case, Harshbarger and Lanzikos have proposed legislation to create a Massachusetts Office of Adult Decisional Support Services (H.1898 and S.974).

The functions of the Office, as listed in the legislation, are vague; but Harshbarger’s and Lanzikos’s own statements in a separate piece in CommonWealth raise concerns for us about what their proposed Office might be tasked to do.

Harshbarger and Lanzikos wrote that the Office would “improve oversight and best-practices in guardianship and conservatorship, as well as support alternatives to guardianship—such as supported decision-making—statewide” (my emphasis). More about Supported Decision-Making in a moment.

We certainly agree that there are compelling questions as to why someone like Britney Spears remains under guardianship, also known in some states as conservatorship. She is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, dancer, and actress who appears to be involuntarily trapped under the guardianship of her father. She appears to be cognitively normal and capable of making her own life choices.

But not all guardianship arrangements are like Spears’ relationship with her father, and not all persons under guardianship are capable of making their own life choices. Yet that is one of a number of distinctions that appear to be lost or glossed over in Harshbarger’s and Lanzikos’s piece.

Harshbarger and Lanzikos aren’t the only ones using the Spears case in this manner. Activitists around the country and even some members of Congress are using Spears’ experience to attack guardianship.

Supported Decision-Making needs safeguards

Supported Decision-Making (SDM) is an arrangement in which individual guardians are replaced by teams or “network supporters,” who enter into written agreements with disabled individuals to help them make decisions about their care, finances, and living arrangements, and in other areas. SDM proponents maintain that guardianship unduly restricts the rights of disabled individuals to make those decisions.

We think SDM can hold promise for some high-functioning individuals; and we would support its adoption with adequate safeguards, particularly safeguards against the potential marginalization of family members.

The problem with proposed legislation to implement SDM in Massachusetts (H.272 and S.124) is that, as with earlier versions of the legislation, there appear to be few, if any, such safeguards in it. The bills still provide no standard for determining who might be eligible for SDM.

The SDM legislation continues to avoid the question whether everyone is really capable of making their own decisions in those very important areas. SDM proponents need to recognize that there are some individuals who do not have the cognitive skills necessary to make reasonable decisions. Those people need guardians – preferably guardians who are family members.

We are concerned that the creation of the Office of Adult Decisional Support Services may be a backdoor means of instituting SDM in Massachusetts as an “alternative” to guardianship.

As noted, the duties of the proposed Office of Adult Decisional Support Services are vague, and “decisional support services” are not even defined in the legislation. The Office would be tasked with “developing oversight and accountability procedures to prevent potential errors or abuses by decisional fiduciaries.”  We think better oversight and more accountability are needed in the probate system; but it is unclear what the proposed Office would consider to be abuses.

We have identified what we think are abuses, including the incentives the probate court system in Massachusetts gives to professional guardians to acquire as many wards as possible while doing little to represent them. This raises another distinction that Harshbarger and Lanzikos appear to have failed to make.

Abuses primarily appear to lie with professional guardians

Harshbarger’s and Lanzikos wrote that they are trying “to raise public awareness around guardianship and conservatorship practices that were brought to light by the Spears case, and to provide systems to protect the rights of individuals from the risks of overreaching, or in isolated cases, outright abuse (by) guardians or conservators.”

In our experience, the overreaching that they refer to applies much more commonly to professionals hired to serve as guardians than it does to family members.

Professional guardians of persons with development disabilities are paid by the state Department of Developmental Services (DDS) — a situation that appears to interfere with the guardians’ legal obligation to act in the best interest of their disabled clients. Family members are not paid for serving as guardians of their loved ones.

We have found that professional guardians of disabled clients often have relatively few interactions with their clients, and frequently side with DDS when family members have gotten into disputes with the agency over the care of those clients.

Need for family rights bill

We think reform of the probate system in Massachusetts is needed, and a first step would be passage of H.1733, a bill which would require that probate court judges consider parents of individuals in the DDS system to be suitable guardians for them. In too many instances, DDS officials, clinicians, providers, and probate judges dismiss families as uninformed or meddlesome.

But we have seen time after time that it is family members who have their loved ones’ best interest at heart. Family members are often the ones most intimately knowledgeable about their physical and emotional conditions.

A serious discussion of guardianship reform is sorely needed. But, as we noted in our article, the proposal from Harshbarger and Lanzikos appears to be one-sided. Basing their proposal on the Britney Spears case is a key indication of that.

Stan McDonald, who fought for guardianship and visits from his son, dies

Stan McDonald, who fought for many years for guardianship of his son, Andy, and championed a guardianship rights bill for parents of persons with developmental disabilities, died on May 6, his wife Ellen announced. He was 85.

We have written about Stan and Ellen’s attempts to overturn a lifetime ban imposed in 2006 by a probate court judge on visits by Andy to his hometown in Sherborn. Andy, who is now 53, is intellectually disabled, and has lived since 1993 in a group home funded by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

Ellen said this morning that despite the ban, Andy will be allowed to attend his father’s funeral in Sherborn. 

Stan, Andy, and Ellen in 2012

In 1986, Stan and his previous wife agreed to the appointment of a guardian for Andy as part of the settlement of a longstanding custody battle over him. Stan was unsuccessful in subsequent years in regaining his guardianship, even though his former wife, local legislators, and other supporters publicly expressed support for that.

In light of his experience, Stan waged a long-term battle for a bill in the state Legislature that would require that probate court judges consider parents as suitable guardians of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. COFAR is continuing to advocate for passage of the legislation, now H.1733.

In his 2006 ruling barring Andy from ever returning to Sherborn, former Probate Judge Edward Rockett stated that Andy had been arrested in 1990 for the sexual assault in his hometown, and was too dangerous to be allowed to ever return there. But it was apparently not the case that Andy was ever arrested or charged with a crime of sexual assault, according to Stan and Ellen.  Their claim appears to be backed up by the district court record and a subsequent police report.

The district court record states that Andy was arrested in Sherborn in May of 1990 for threatening an unidentified person during a telephone call.  The nature of the threats was not disclosed.  In July of that year, he was charged with disturbing the peace in downtown Sherborn, according to a police department report. That same day, he was charged with assault after he punched Ellen, his stepmother.  Stan and Ellen said the punch was accidental.

Stan and Ellen maintained that Andy has not exhibited any significant behavioral problems in the past decade. He has been taken on community outings to many places other than his home without any behavioral incidents, according to his yearly clinical care plans.  He was described in one care plan as “kind and friendly to others,” and as “a polite man.”

While an appeals court upheld Rocket’s decision in 2009, barring Andy from returning to Sherborn, the appeals court stated in a footnote that “some of the fact findings adopted by the judge (Rockett) were not supported by the evidence…” The footnote specifically stated, with regard to Rockett’s claims about the arrest for sexual assault, that “the specific facts (of the incidents in Sherborn) and the charges are not clear from the record.”

We have long called for an independent clinical evaluation of Andy. Such an evaluation was also urged by the McDonalds’ local legislators.

Stan and Ellen maintained that Andy is not dangerous and should be allowed supervised visits home.

Successful advocacy for Andy

While Stan never was granted guardianship of Andy, he was successful in advocating for better care for Andy in many instances. That advocacy included a successful effort to get clinicians to discontinue administering Stelazine, an anti-psychotic drug, to Andy. The drug had caused him to develop Tardive Dyskinesia, a disorder  resulting in involuntary, repetitive body movements.

Supporters urge restoration of Stan McDonald’s guardianship of Andy

In 2013, State Representative David Linsky, the main sponsor of Stan’s guardianship bill over the years, wrote a letter in support of Stan’s appointment as Andy’s guardian. Linsky noted that he had known Stan for 14 years and “can personally attest that he is deeply committed to his son Andy’s care and only wants the best for him.”

John Carroll, a former residential counselor to Andy at the Cardinal Cushing School, also wrote to DDS that year to say that he had frequently observed visits to Andy by Stan and Ellen, and that “I have seen theirs to be a bond that is unique and irreplaceable. Stanley’s and Ellen’s dedication to Andy’s care and treatment in all circumstances leaves no question in my mind that Stanley McDonald is the sole individual with the knowledge, experience, and love, deserving to have responsibility for major decisions in Andy’s life as guardian.”

And Stefan Grotz, the original court-appointed guardian in the case, wrote in 2002, after he had stepped down from that role, that “never have I met a more passionate advocate for a son than Stanley McDonald.” He strongly recommended to the court that McDonald be appointed as his son’s guardian. 

Guardianship bill

H.1733, which Stan advocated for continuously, would require probate court judges to presume that the parents of developmentally disabled persons, or third parties designated by the parents, are suitable as guardians for those individuals.

The bill would level the playing field in the DDS–probate court system, which often appears biased against families. As we have reported, probate judges frequently appoint attorneys as guardians of developmentally disabled persons, passing over their family members.

If they don’t have guardianship, family members can find themselves with virtually no rights or input into the care of their loved ones, and may even be excluded from contact with them.

In Stan’s memory, we would urge people to contact the Judiciary Committee, and urge the committee to act favorably on H.1733. The co-chairs are Senator James Eldridge (phone: 617- 722-1120; email: James.Eldridge@masenate.gov ) and Representative Michael Day (phone: 617-722-2396; email Michael.Day@mahouse.gov).

DDS seeks to remove mother as co-guardian of her son after she saves his life

November 12, 2020 51 comments

Cindy Alemesis’ son, Nicholas, nearly died in December 2018 after staff in his group home in Dracut failed to take him for a scheduled morning ultrasound appointment, which would have shown that his brain shunt was leaking spinal fluid.

Just hours after the scheduled time for the appointment, Cindy first noticed how ill Nick appeared.

Cindy was with Nick following an evening church service, and made sure he was taken to a hospital. There, doctors found that the shunt was leaking spinal fluid into his body, and that the fluid had begun to build up in his stomach. Cindy didn’t know at the time that the ultrasound appointment had been missed.

Nick got sepsis from the leaked fluid, and was in Mass. General Hospital for eight months, during which he underwent multiple brain operations and other procedures. Cindy was at his bedside for much of that time.

Nick, who is 28, has a mild intellectual disability, and was born with hydrocephalus, a condition in which there is excess spinal fluid in his brain. He has a shunt in his brain that drains the fluid.

Nick Alemesis and his mother, Cindy

Since Nick’s recovery and release from the hospital in July 2019, Cindy has regularly complained that staff in the group home, run by LifeLinks, a provider to the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), have continued to miss medical and dental appointments for him.

But rather than addressing those concerns, DDS is now moving to remove Cindy as her son’s co-guardian, stating only in a court document filed last month that she has made decisions that were not in Nick’s best interest. The DDS filing in Middlesex Probate Court does not provide any specifics as to what decisions those might have been.

Cindy said DDS has done little or nothing to address the concerns she has raised about Nick’s care in the group home.  She said problems, in addition to the missed appointments, include sharp restrictions placed on her contact with Nick for reasons that have not been explained to her.

Cindy said the other co-guardian for Nick, who is apparently paid by DDS, appears to live in Florida, and has been uninvolved in Nick’s care. Cindy sought unsuccessfully to remove that co-guardian last year in probate court.

It isn’t clear whether the current move by DDS to remove Cindy as co-guardian is in retaliation for her attempt to remove the other co-guardian. It is also unclear whether DDS wants to make that individual Nick’s sole guardian.

I emailed a request for comment on this matter on Tuesday (November 10) to DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder, and to Barbara Green Whitbeck, DDS assistant general counsel. Whitbeck signed the Department’s petition to the probate court to remove Cindy as co-guardian. Neither Ryder nor Whitbeck has yet responded to my request for comment.

Support from church pastor 

Keith Phemister is pastor of the Lighthouse Baptist Church in Hudson, NH, which Cindy, her husband, and Nick have attended for the past 20 years.

Phemister strongly supports Cindy’s remaining as Nick’s co-guardian, and said he is baffled by DDS’s claim that she hasn’t made decisions in his best interest.

Phemister said Cindy can be abrasive at times, and that he has spoken to her about it. But he maintains her abrasiveness is because she feels that her son is being mistreated, and that she sometimes will speak her mind without thinking about how others might react.

“I know she (Cindy) is fighting for her son,” Phemister said. “It’s possible they (DDS) see that as a negative, but she loves her son and is fighting for him, and they’re holding that against her.”

Phemister said that on the evening Nick got ill in December 2018, Nick had attended Wednesday church services with Cindy. The church has a van that picked Cindy up from her home in Lowell, and picked up Nick from his group home in Dracut, and took them to the church in Hudson, NH. After the service, Nick started feeling ill, and was sweating and vomiting on the van ride back to Dracut.

Phemister said Cindy was so concerned, she had them detour and take Nick to Lowell General Hospital. Nick was later transferred to Mass. General. Phemister said the medical staff apparently told Cindy that Nick would have died had he not been brought to the hospital that day.

Cindy at Nick’s bedside in the hospital

Doctor stipulates to missed ultrasound appointment

In a written statement, Zaheer Ahmed, a doctor of internal medicine based in Lowell, said he examined Nick on December 17, 2018, two days before Nick fell ill and was taken to Lowell General.

During the December 17 visit, Ahmed scheduled an ultrasound of Nick’s abdomen for two days later — December 19 at 10 a.m.

Ahmed’s statement added that “the patient and care worker were both informed of (the) appointment before leaving the office on that date.”  However, the doctor’s statement says Nick didn’t show up for the December 19 appointment, and the ultrasound had to be rescheduled for December 21.

However, by then it was too late. Nick fell ill during the church service in the evening of December 19. During the ride back in the van, Nick was first taken on Cindy’s insistence to Lowell General Hospital. He was transferred a few hours later to Mass. General.

A document from Mass. General shows Nick was admitted on December 20 with fever, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, and abdominal pain. That was the start of an eight-month stay in the hospital.

At Mass. General, Nick had 13 operations to remove and replace the shunt in his brain, and seven procedures on his throat due to an infection caused by his trach tube, Cindy said.

According to the Mass. General document, Nick also underwent a subsequent operation for a perforated bowel caused by a piece of the infected shunt.

DDS and provider apparently failed to report hospitalization

Given Dr. Ahmed’s written statement regarding the missed ultrasound appointment, the LifeLinks staff were knowledgeable and responsible for bringing Nick to the appointment, and failed to do so – a potentially negligent act that could well have cost him his life.

Cindy said she immediately reported those circumstances to officials at DDS. It appears, however, that neither the provider nor DDS reported the matter to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), as required by the DPPC’s enabling statute and regulations. As a result, DPPC never investigated the matter or authorized DDS to investigate it.

In response to a query from Cindy earlier this month, DPPC responded that it had received no complaint report involving Nick’s hospitalization until Cindy herself filed a complaint about it last month.

The DPPC’s statute and regulations state that “mandated reporters” must report any situation resulting in a serious physical injury if there is reasonable cause to believe it was due to abuse or neglect.

Missed appointments continue

Cindy said she has been frustrated that the group home staff continued to miss appointments for Nick, even after his release from the hospital in July 2019.

A written statement from Jonathan Moray, a doctor with New England Neurological Associates of Lawrence, stated, for instance, that Nick missed an appointment on November 27, 2019, just a few months after he got out of the hospital.

A written statement last year from Tufts Dental School states that they could not schedule any further dental appointments for Nick “due to lack of updated medical paperwork.” That paperwork is required to be updated yearly, and nothing was on file since 2017, the Tufts letter stated.

Cindy said Nick’s teeth are still damaged from a trach tube that was inserted during his hospitalization.

DPPC screens out recent complaint

Unable to get an adequate resolution to her concerns about the missed appointments, Cindy filed the complaint last month with DPPC. But the agency screened out that complaint as ineligible for an abuse investigation, and instead referred it to DDS for an “administrative review.”

The DPPC intake form states that Cindy’s complaint was screened out because Nick had not suffered a serious physical or emotional injury. However, that same DPPC intake report acknowledged that one of the alleged missed appointments had led to Nick’s hospitalization for eight months.

DDS attorney threatened to take away co-guardianship in 2019

Cindy said Barbara Green Whitbeck, the DDS assistant general counsel, first threatened to take away her co-guardianship of Nick last year, and accused Cindy at the time of trying to improperly feed Nick while he was hospitalized. Cindy denied that she ever fed Nick improperly.

Whitbeck has represented DDS in the ongoing probate court fight in which Cindy had sought to remove the DDS co-guardian. Cindy said that when she informed Whitbeck during a private meeting of her concerns about the other co-guardian and the alleged negligence of the provider, Whitbeck dismissed those concerns.

“She (Whitbeck) said the (LifeLinks) staff did nothing wrong,” Cindy said. “Then she accused me of feeding my son and keeping him sick in (Mass. General).” Cindy said she got up at that point to leave the meeting, and Whitbeck threatened her, saying if she left, she would lose her co-guardianship.

Cindy said the charge of improperly feeding Nick was untrue and “came out of left field.”

Cindy said that while she was at Nick’s bedside in the hospital, the nurses trained her in how to suction his trach tube and how to put his medication, which was crushed up in a type of pudding, into his G-tube. His trach had to be sanctioned every 20 minutes or so, she said.

Cindy feels Nick is continuing to be isolated in his group home

Cindy said Nick’s phone was recently taken away from him, and that he has had few social interactions since March. Before that, his church was his main source of social interaction.

Currently, Cindy’s contact with her son is restricted by the group home to once a week. Her phone contact with him is also apparently highly restricted. She was told in March that no in-house visits were permitted because of the COVID crisis, but said no one informed her that in-house visits were restored as of early October under revised DDS guidelines.

In an email on Oct. 8, Cindy complained to Nick’s service coordinator that the group home staff told her not to call Nick, and didn’t give her a reason for that. She said she sometimes goes for three to five days without hearing from him.

Cindy said those restrictions on contact have made it harder for her to keep track of the care Nick is receiving, and to monitor his medical needs. She said that when she called the house earlier this week to ask permission to visit her son, a staff member hung up on her.

Case fits a pattern

Unfortunately, this case fits a pattern we have seen in which DDS and sometimes providers themselves have taken a variety of punitive and retaliatory actions against family members and guardians when they are seen as troublesome or meddlesome in advocating for adequate care for their loved ones in the system.

Guardians, parents, and other family members can suddenly find their contact with their loved ones restricted or banned entirely, and their guardianship placed in jeopardy. They are frequently either ignored or threatened with punitive actions if they don’t agree to accept the providers’ decisions on care and services without complaint. (Examples of this are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Without an attorney, family members and guardians can find themselves badly outmatched and outgunned by DDS’s extensive legal resources, particularly in probate court. The system is entirely unfair and designed to bully families into submission.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. We strongly hope that Cindy prevails in her battle to keep her guardianship, and will do everything we can to help her. But it will likely be an uphill battle.

What you can do

We urge people to call DDS at 617-727-5608 and ask to leave a message with the commissioner in support of Cindy remaining as her son’s co-guardian.

Also, please call your local state legislators (you can find them here), particularly if you live in the Lowell and Dracut areas, and ask them to contact DDS on her behalf. And please share this post on Facebook and other social media.

Supported Decision Making bill needs clarity and safeguards

February 21, 2019 6 comments

We’ve recently expressed concerns about “Supported Decision Making” (SDM), a growing movement to restrict guardianships of persons with developmental disabilities and replace those guardians with “networks” of more informal advisors.

In that vein, a bill to promote SDM in Massachusetts (HD.666 in the House and SD.843 in the Senate) does little to alleviate our concerns.

We think SDM can hold promise for some high-functioning individuals, and we would support its adoption with adequate safeguards, particularly safeguards against the potential marginalization of family members.

The problem with the bill is that there appear to be few, if any, such safeguards in it, and the bill provides no standard for determining who might be eligible for an SDM arrangement.

Under SDM, individual guardians are replaced by teams or “network supporters,” who enter into written agreements with disabled individuals to help them make decisions about their care, finances, living arrangements and other areas. SDM proponents maintain that guardianship unduly restricts the rights of disabled individuals to make those decisions.

But the bill skirts the question whether everyone is really capable of making their own decisions in those very important areas. The bill states that, “with support, many people with disabilities can make their own decisions…” (our emphasis). That statement actually says very little.

What the bill does state explicitly is that under SDM, the developmentally disabled individual is the “decision maker” regarding their services and their financial and legal affairs.

But can someone with a profound intellectual disability, for instance, be considered capable of making their own decisions even with assistance from an SDM team? As one public advocacy organization put it in relation to SDM, is it possible for anyone to make their own decisions “if they do not have…an appreciation of the significance of the decision they are making or a reasonably consistent set of values?” 

The bill simply doesn’t address those questions. As a result, it seems possible the assumption underlying the bill is that yes, many individuals are capable of making these decisions even if they have “significantly sub-average intellectual functioning,” lack the ability to communicate, and lack practical living and conceptual skills.

SDM proponents need to recognize that there are some individuals who do not have the cognitive skills necessary to make reasonable decisions. Those people need guardians.

It’s not sufficient to insert a vague statement into proposed legislation that “many people” are capable of making their own decisions. Where does that capability begin or end? What the bill needs to specify is a threshold level of cognitive ability, determined through research, above which SDM would be permissible and below which it wouldn’t.

The problem is that many SDM proponents refuse to recognize that such a threshold level even exists. The American Bar Association, for instance, rejects the use of a clinical standard or diagnosis of cognitive ability in determining whether an individual is capable of making their own decisions.

Little or no protection from conflicts of interest or exploitation

There is also nothing in the language of the bill to prevent human services providers from being placed on the SDM teams — a situation that would seem to set up a potential conflict of interest.

We have seen many cases, for instance, in which family members have made allegations of poor care or conditions in group homes, and the providers have not only ignored the families’ concerns, but have, in some cases, retaliated against the families. In too many of those cases, DDS has taken the side of the providers.

It’s not hard, in instances like that, to imagine the outcome if a representative of the provider and of DDS were on the individual’s SDM team. The family member would be consistently “outvoted” on decisions about the person’s care.

There is, moreover, no provision in the bill for preventing the exploitation of developmentally disabled persons other than a provision that anyone who has reason to believe that someone is being exploited can report that to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC). There is not a requirement, however, that the DPPC actually investigate such a complaint or that the DPPC not refer the complaint to another agency such as the Department of Developmental Services for investigation.

There is also no provision in the bill that would provide for regular auditing or other oversight of SDM agreements.

In addition, there is a provision in the bill that appears to offer SDM as an alternative to guardianship even for children. The bill appears to imply that even children with intellectual disabilities would be considered eligible to make their own financial and legal decisions.  We’re not sure that even children of normal cognitive ability have that legal right under most circumstances.

Unfortunately, it appears to us that many proponents of the SDM movement do not want to adopt safeguards or standards, possibly because that process could lead to debate and disagreement that might slow the SDM movement down. We think taking the time to resolve disagreements and adopting standards would ultimately be the best way forward for SDM and for the disabled individuals it is intended to help.

 

Movement to replace guardianship appears based on little research

November 7, 2018 3 comments

A juggernaut of support has been building in Massachusetts and around the country to replace guardians of persons with developmental disabilities with more informal “support networks” of advisors.

Yet, the growing movement behind “Supported Decision Making” (SDM) appears to be primarily ideological, and little research appears to have been done on the impact of SDM on disabled individuals and their families.

Under SDM, individual guardians are replaced by teams or “network supporters,” who enter into written agreements with disabled individuals to “help them make decisions” about their care, finances, living arrangements and other areas.

Proponents of SDM claim that it restores the right of disabled and elderly persons who are under guardianship to make their own life decisions with help, if needed, from networks of supporters. That right has been overly curtailed by guardians, the SDM proponents maintain.

Even the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities included language in 2008 “that embraces supported decision-making and which is seen by some as requiring nations to adopt supported decision-making mechanisms,” according to a 2013 article on SDM in the Penn State Law Review.

Still, not everyone is convinced that all guardianships should be terminated, or that they should be replaced by SDM. As that same law journal article by Nina A. Kohn, Jeremy A. Blumenthal, and Amy T. Campbell, noted, “…despite much rhetoric touting its (SDM’s) advantages, little is known about how supported decision-making processes operate or about the outcomes of those processes.”

Without more information, the 2013 article stated,

…it is impossible to know whether supported decision-making actually empowers persons with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. Furthermore, there is reason to be concerned that supported decision-making might actually have the opposite effect, disempowering such individuals or making them more vulnerable to manipulation, coercion, or abuse.

COFAR has raised concerns about SDM, contending it could marginalize family members as decision makers in the care of their loved ones with developmental disabilities. COFAR has also raised a concern that SDM networks can potentially include service providers – a situation that would appear to pose a conflict of interest if the provider is also providing services to an individual for whom it is participating in an SDM network.

In Massachusetts, the state Senate included a provision in the state’s Fiscal 2019 budget last spring for a commission to study replacing guardianship in the state with SDM. (S.2530). While such a study would ordinarily be welcome, the proposed study commission under the budget legislation appeared to be comprised primarily of SDM supporters. And while the study was not included in the final state budget, its proponents will no doubt keep trying to insert a similar study commission in future budgets.   

The SDM study commission would have included representatives from the Arc of Massachusetts, the Center for Public Representation, and other SDM proponents, including Mass. Advocates Standing Strong and the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse.

COFAR would support a commission to study SDM. But it should be an impartial study, and not dominated by anti-guardianship organizations.

Massachusetts also appears to have been moving in the direction of SDM in recent years with the adoption of “person-centered planning,” a process that also appears to lack oversight and to have the potential to put much of the decision-making power over an individual’s funds into the hands of private companies.

Yet, even major legal organizations such as the American Bar Association appear to have made up their minds in favor of SDM; and like many other SDM proponents, the ABA appears to be basing its position on ideology rather than research or clinical standards.

In email exchanges with COFAR in September and last month, Dari Pogach, an attorney with the ABA’s Commission on Law and Aging, implied that a guardian may not be necessary even for some persons with severe or profound intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Pogach stated that the decision to replace an individual’s guardian with an SDM network should be based on the person’s ability make their own decisions. Yet, no clinical diagnosis or standard of cognitive ability is necessary to make that determination, she wrote.

The paradox of SDM

The view that no clinical diagnosis is needed in determining whether an individual is capable of making their own decisions appears to be linked to the ideological position of many SDM proponents that virtually all persons, no matter how cognitively impaired they might be, are capable of making life decisions.

Yet, in their Penn State Law Review article, Kohn et al. pointed out that:

…there is a potentially unavoidable paradox in acknowledging that a person has diminished decision-making capacity but maintaining that he or she is nevertheless capable of meaningfully contributing to decision-making discussions and that the decisions that result from such discussions reflect his or her wishes. (my emphasis)

Kohn at al. included the following quote from a 2009 discussion paper on SDM issued by the Office of the Public Advocate in Victoria, Australia:

Can a person be assisted through information, emotional support or in some other way to make their own decisions if they do not have, for example, an appreciation of the significance of the decision they are making or a reasonably consistent set of values? 

Lack of research on outcomes of SDM

In their article, Kohn et al. said they had found no research “evaluating the quality of decisions reached using supported decision-making.” Such research is needed, and should include whether a decision increases an individual’s welfare in some way, they wrote.

Similarly, Kohn et al. stated that there has been little or no research on the demographics of guardianship and SDM. It is unknown, for instance, how many people in the United States are subject to guardianship.

While researchers have estimated that approximately 1.5 million people in the United States are subject to guardianship at any given time, Kohn et al. stated, the actual numbers are unknown, in part, because many states fail to provide the types of records that would enable a national assessment.

Kohn et al. also stated that it is unknown what portion of persons subject to guardianship are persons with intellectual disabilities, and it is unknown what percentage of guardians are “public guardians,” as opposed to family members, friends, or other third parties. It can be reasonably assumed, they stated, that most guardians are not public guardians.

To that extent, it would appear to us that SDM is primarily aimed at replacing family members of persons with developmental disabilities as guardians.

Kohn et al. further noted that research is needed on who does best at helping a developmentally disabled person to reach a “beneficial decision.” Is it family members, friends, health-care providers, or others?

Our experience has been that family members make the best guardians, and, as noted, that there is a potential conflict of interest in allowing providers to assist developmentally disabled persons in making decisions.

In fact, Kohn at al. stated that:

…when we turn to more informal arrangements such as supported decision-making, which may occur in private and with less accountability, the potential for financial or other abuse likely increases. However, data do not seem available on the incidence of such abuse in the supported decision-making context. (my emphasis)

No distinction drawn between people with different levels of disability

The Kohn article raised an additional concern that although SDM is often seen as particularly likely to benefit persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, “a fundamental concern with these demographic data (about SDM) is that it is unclear how representative they are of individuals with ID (intellectual disability).”

Yet, even the Kohn article did not appear to fully acknowledge or recognize that people with the same type of intellectual disability may have different reactions to SDM and to guardianship depending upon the level or severity of their disability.

For instance, the Kohn article suggested that research is needed to probe whether SDM might lead to “coercive discussion processes or even abuse that might vary with the principal’s age group or type of disability.” But the article did not question whether such variations might be due to a person’s level or severity of disability.

That is an important distinction, in our view, because it would seem that SDM might work well for persons with very mild levels of intellectual disability, but would not work well with people with severe or profound levels of that same type of disability.

In sum, we think legislators, courts, and other policy makers need to slow down when it comes to guardianship reform and think more carefully about how that should be accomplished. We have listed our own reform recommendations, which we think get at the root of the problems that guardianship does pose today.

Reform of the guardianship and probate system is needed, but that doesn’t mean the system should be replaced with something that hasn’t yet been sufficiently researched.

Advocacy group appears to say persons with even the most profound intellectual disability may not need guardians

October 9, 2018 5 comments

We are questioning statements from a leading organization seeking to reduce or eliminate guardianships that imply that a guardian may not be necessary even for some of the lowest functioning people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

In an email to me on September 27, Dari Pogach, a staff attorney with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging, stated that decisions to appoint or terminate guardians “should not be based on diagnosis or condition.”

That statement appears to imply that an individual’s diagnosed level of disability is irrelevant in determining whether that person needs a guardian; and therefore, even the most profoundly cognitively impaired persons may not need guardians.

The ABA Commission is working with the National Center on Law and Elder Rights (NCLER) to replace guardianships with a more informal process called Supported Decision Making (SDM).

Under SDM, individual guardians are replaced by teams or “network supporters,” who enter into written agreements with disabled individuals to “help them make decisions” about their care, finances, living arrangements and other areas. The network supporters can include family members, but they can also include corporate service providers, according to the Center for Public Representation, which is pushing for SDM in Massachusetts. 

COFAR is concerned that SDM, which is part of a growing effort to reduce or eliminate guardianships, could marginalize family members in decisions made about the care of their loved ones with developmental disabilities. That’s because it is primarily family members who seek to become guardians of incapacitated persons after they reach the legal age of adulthood at 18.

The VOR, a national advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities, adds that SDM “could weaken protections for those who are the most vulnerable.”

Pogach’s full statement to me was as follows:

The decision to appoint a guardian in the first place, or terminate the guardianship, should not be based on diagnosis or condition, but rather on the person’s ability to make their own decisions, with or without support and to be safe from abuse, neglect and exploitation (my emphasis).

The problem with this statement, in our view, is that it raises a troubling question. If clinicians are not required or allowed to consider an individual’s clinical level of disability, how can they determine what a person’s ability is to make their own decisions?  It would seem that in that case, that determination would become totally arbitrary.

Pogach’s statement draws no distinction between levels of intellectual or developmental disability, and appears to imply further that people even with the most severe or profound levels of such disabilities may be capable of making their own decisions about life choices and care without the need of a guardian.

Pogach was a panelist in an NCLER-sponsored webinar on August 22 that discussed efforts by the organization to terminate guardianships in a number of instances involving persons who were elderly or had developmental disabilities. As a member of the webinar audience, I submitted a written comment and a question to the webinar panelists.  Pogach’s September 27 email was in response to my comment and question.

In my comment to the webinar panel, I stated that COFAR was concerned that SDM could “marginalize family members who we have found often make the best guardians for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

I also noted that severe and profound levels of intellectual and developmental disability present very different issues from moderate levels of those conditions, and we did not necessarily see those distinctions made by the webinar panelists.

Finally, I posed the question whether any protections were possible under SDM to ensure that a family member would not be “outvoted” on an SDM team by providers, clinicians and others who may not have the same degree of interest in the wellbeing of the disabled individual.

In her September 27 email in response, Pogach included the following statement:

The purpose of SDM is not to marginalize family members. SDM is predicated on the person being at the center of the decision-making process, and that includes choosing who will act as a (network) supporter. It is also means the person can choose to agree or not to agree with everyone in their supported decision-making network, including providers, clinicians, and family members. (my emphasis)

This response raises further questions and concerns for us. It appears to imply that not only can an individual with an intellectual or developmental disability, no matter how severe or profound, make their own decisions about their care, they can overrule family members and others on their SDM team or network.

While that viewpoint might appear to be simply meaningless if it were to be applied to extremely low-functioning persons, it is nevertheless concerning because it further implies that family members, in particular, should not be making decisions about the care of their developmentally disabled loved ones.

Pogach’s statement added that:

When supported decision-making is working, the person does not follow the majority vote of the (SDM network) supporters. The role of the supporters is to listen, help the person understand their options, and help the person to make their own decision. (my emphasis)

As noted, this viewpoint appears to make no distinction between people who are elderly, for instance, and persons with developmental disabilities, or between high functioning individuals with developmental disabilities and those with severe or profound levels of disability.

The fact that support for SDM has become an ideological position is evident in a statement in a law journal article by Leslie Salzman, a prominent SDM proponent:

Virtually everyone has the ability to participate in the decisions affecting his or her life, with the possible exceptions of persons who are comatose or in a persistent vegetative state. (my emphasis)

For Salzman, it’s apparently more likely than not that even a person in a persistently unconscious state can participate in making decisions about their care.

In an October 1 email in response to Pogach, I stated that we have seen instance after instance in which providers, clinicians, state agency managers, and other professionals have sided with each other and against family members in disputes over care of the individuals in question. The views and concerns of the family members are often dismissed or ignored in these cases, even though it is usually the family that knows the individual best. And, of course, family members are almost always the only people in this group with strong emotional bonds to the individual.

I also noted that the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (PL 106-402) states that “Individuals with developmental disabilities and their families are the primary decision makers regarding the services and supports such individuals and their families receive…” (my emphasis)

No distinction made between family members and professionals as guardians

While abuses in the guardianship system certainly occur, we think the potential for abuse is greater when professional guardians are involved than when family members are guardians. DDS pays attorneys and corporate entities to provide guardianship services to persons in cases in which family members are not available or have been removed as guardians.

As we have reported, there is relatively poor oversight of the professional guardianship system, at least in Massachusetts.

However, while SDM might be seen as a solution to the abuses committed by professional guardians, we are concerned that it may just shift the potential for exploitation from those professional guardians to corporate providers.

These state-funded providers have a direct financial stake in the care of persons with developmental disabilities. As such, including providers in an SDM network establishes a potential conflict of interest. Yet, the Center for Public Representation, a prominent SDM supporter, suggests that an SDM network can include “family members, co-workers, friends, and past or present providers.”

We have also reported that many of the same organizations that are advocating for SDM as an alternative to guardianships, including the Center for Public Representation, have also been involved in efforts to restrict congregate care and promote privatization of care for the developmentally disabled.

In sum, we do agree that significant reforms are needed in the guardianship/probate court system with respect to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But we see that exploitation as being due primarily to rampant privatization and its connection to poor governmental oversight of professional guardians, and not to the appointment of family members as guardians.

SDM could be a viable component of the reform of the current system, provided there is an acknowledgement that SDM is not appropriate or suitable in every instance and that there are persons who simply cannot reliably make their own life choices and will ultimately need to have guardians. In cases in which SDM is determined to be an appropriate option, a way needs to be found to ensure that the family member or members on the SDM network remain the primary decision maker(s) on the network.

I noted to Pogach that the following are some of the additional reforms we have proposed to the system: 

  • Increased financial oversight of the corporate provider system and the DDS/probate guardianship system.
  • Passage of legislation requiring probate court judges to presume that family members are suitable guardians of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • The provision of free legal assistance to family members and guardians who been barred from contact with their loved ones in the DDS system or who have otherwise faced retaliation from the Department or from providers.
  • The provision of free legal assistance to family members whose guardianships are challenged by DDS.
  • A policy statement by DDS that the Department will make every effort to comply with the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, and, in particular, the statement in the law that individuals with developmental disabilities and their families are the primary decision makers.

We’re anxious to hear back from Pogach on this. Unfortunately, the movement to reduce or eliminate guardianshps appears to be yet another area in which ideology is replacing both common sense and scientific, evidence-based policy making. We need to maintain those latter values.

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