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DDS placing client in a ‘Catch-22’ position to force her to leave her shared living caregiver

December 13, 2022 8 comments

The Department of Developmental Services is arguing in a legal brief that Mercy Mezzanotti, a departmental client, should be disenrolled from a program that provides her with shared living services unless she agrees to move away from her long-time caregiver, Karen Faiola.

But Mercy maintains that she wants to stay with Karen with whom she and her therapist say she has thrived emotionally over the past four years.

In May, Karen’s previous payment agency, Venture Community Services, suddenly canceled her shared living contract without stating a reason in its termination notice. As a result of the contract termination, DDS maintains in the legal brief that Karen is no longer a “qualified shared living provider.”

The DDS brief further argues that because Mercy has refused to move in with a new caregiver, she has “voluntarily declined” shared living services and should be disenrolled from the program.

For reasons that DDS has not revealed publicly, the Department has declined to refer Karen to a new shared living payment agency. DDS does not contract directly with shared living caregivers, but does refer them to shared living payment agencies such as Venture. Were DDS to refer Karen to a new agency, Karen would presumably become a qualfied caregiver once again.

Karen Faiola and Mercy Mezzanotti

Karen and Mercy both maintain that Karen’s contract was terminated after both of them accused Venture employees of emotionally abusing Mercy. They claim DDS is siding with Venture in the matter, and that the Department has refused to fully investigate their charges.

Because DDS has declined to refer Karen to a new corporate payment agency, Karen has not been paid since May for caring for Mercy even though Mercy has continued to reside in her home. In Karen’s and Mercy’s view, DDS’s legal argument has placed both of them in impossible, Catch-22 positions in order to deny what Mercy has expressly stated what she wants – services from Karen.

Mercy’s appeal of DDS’s disenrollment notice is now before a state hearing officer who held a hearing on it last month. By way of disclosure, I attended the November 10 hearing via Zoom and testified in support of Mercy and Karen. I agreed, at the request of hearing officer and Erin Brown, a DDS assistant general counsel, not to publish details of the actual hearing on this blogsite until the hearing officer renders her decision, which is expected sometime later this month.

As a result of that agreement, I am confining this post to a discussion of the legal brief filed by Brown with the hearing officer on December 7, after the hearing concluded. In her brief, Brown laid out the Department’s argument for disenrolling Mercy from services under the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) federal waiver program.

In May, as we also reported, Venture employees removed Mercy, against her will, from Karen’s home and placed her for two days in the home of another caregiver whom she didn’t know. After objecting to the move, Mercy was able to return to Karen’s home. We have joined Mercy and Karen in asking the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) to fully investigate both the removal of Mercy from Karen’s home and allegations made by Mercy that she had been previously emotionally abused by Venture employees.

Catch-22 positions for Mercy and Karen

The key point Brown makes in her brief is that Mercy became ineligible for the HCBS Waiver, which supports shared living, when Mercy came back to live with Karen after her involuntary removal from Karen’s home. Brown’s brief stated that Mercy:

…voluntarily declined shared living supports from a Qualified Provider, and instead choose to live with Ms. Faiola (Karen). This choice, which is her right, resulted in (Mercy) being ineligible for the (HCBS) Waiver because she was not receiving a Waiver program service: Ms. Faiola is not a qualified and licensed provider, nor is Ms. Faiola employed by a Qualified Provider to provide Waiver services.” (my emphasis)

However, as noted above, the reason Karen is not employed by a Qualified Provider is that Venture terminated her contract without stating a cause, and DDS will not refer her to a new Qualified Provider.

Also, while Brown stated that Karen herself is not a licensed or qualified shared living provider, Brown later stated in the same brief that in this case, the licensed and qualified provider was Venture, a DDS-funded corporate agency, that contracts directly with shared living caregivers. Shared living caregivers themselves, such as Karen, are not licensed by DDS.

DDS says psychotherapist’s testimony that Mercy has reportedly thrived under Karen’s care was irrelevant

In her brief, Brown acknowledged that Grishelda Hogan, an outpatient psychotherapist, who has treated Mercy since  2018, testified during the hearing that she has “not had any concerns about (Mercy) in the care of Ms. Faiola.”

As we reported, Hogan actually sent a written statement to the hearing officer prior to the hearing in which she stated that Mercy had “expressed consistently that she was happy in her home (with Karen)…It was clear in therapy that (Mercy) was making great strides in her life and I was able to see her self-esteem and self-worth develop as she finally felt seen and heard.“

Brown stated in her brief, however, that “the entirety of Ms. Hogan’s testimony was irrelevant. She did not testify about the (HCBS) Waiver or Waiver rules. There were no clinical matters at issue in the fair hearing, nor was Ms. Hogan qualified as an expert to speak on clinical matters.”

It appears that Brown is admitting in her brief that Mercy’s emotional state, and her wishes, are irrelevant to DDS. Also, Hogan is a psychotherapist who has worked with Mercy for four years. Brown’s brief offers no reason why she would not be qualified to speak on clinical matters.

Brown similarly contended in her brief that testimony by Mercy’s sister Tami Baxter that Mercy was doing well in Karen’s care was irrelevant. And Brown maintained that Karen’s testimony that DDS has refused to refer her to another qualified provider was “outside the scope of the fair hearing and irrelevant.”

In our view, Karen’s employment relationship with Venture is of central relevance to the case. Venture’s termination of the contract with Karen is the basis of DDS’s argument that Mercy is not receiving services from a Qualified Provider.

As I noted in a written statement that I sent on November 17 to the hearing officer, Mercy had been in several shared living arrangements before she met Karen that were not successful and that left her in a depressed and dysfunctional emotional state. We think placing Mercy with a different shared living provider than Karen would risk a return to the unsuccessful placements of the past for her and would risk undoing the emotional and psychological progress she has made with Karen. Those are risks that we think may be quite high.

We are urging the hearing officer to decide in favor of Mercy Mezzanotti’s appeal to retain her eligibility for services from DDS.

We are also requesting that the hearing officer either order or advise DDS to refer Karen to a new payment agency in order to allow Mercy to continue to receive shared living services from her.

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