17 Deaths Raise Questions About Care Of Oklahoma Developmentally Disabled
By Clifton Adcock, Oklahoma Watch
The deaths of 17 developmentally disabled people transferring or already transferred out of two large state-run institutions are raising questions about whether the closing of the centers put residents' health at risk.
The deaths occurred after the state decided in November 2012 to shutter the facilities in Enid and Pauls Valley over the objections of some of the residents' guardians and parents. Almost all of the nearly 230 adult residents were to move to small, privately owned “community homes,” where services are offered by various providers.
State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, said he wants to know whether the impending closure of the facilities and the residents' transition into community homes contributed to the deaths.
Anderson wrote a letter to Attorney General Scott Pruitt on Oct. 24, one day after the most recent death. He called for a review of the deaths, which occurred in 2013 and 2014. The residents began moving out of the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center of Enid, or NORCE, and the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley, or SORC, in March 2013.
Among those who died, seven were living at NORCE, two were living at SORC, and eight had transitioned into community homes.
By comparison, there were seven total deaths at NORCE and SORC in 2012, four in 2011 and one in 2010, at the Enid facility, state officials said. The deaths in 2013 and 2014 occurred as the population of residents and staffing levels were being reduced.
Anderson said in an interview that he wrote the letter after learning of an intellectually and developmentally disabled man, Gary Wilkinson, who died nine days after being transferred from the Enid center to a community home on Oct. 14.
Wilkinson's guardian and uncle, Carlton Wilkinson of Duncan, said his nephew had come down with pneumonia before being transferred out of NORCE and was hospitalized. After recovering and being sent back to NORCE, the 40-year-old Wilkinson, who had been disabled since childhood, was transitioned out of the facility to a community home in Guthrie, his uncle said.
However, days later, he again came down with pneumonia and was unable to recover, Carlton Wilkinson said.
Calling the 17 deaths over 22 months “abnormally high,” Anderson said is he asking Pruitt to determine why the deaths occurred to ensure the safety of other people in community homes.
“I don't know about the individual circumstances, and I'm not trying to politicize this, but if it had been 17 foster children, people would be outraged,” Anderson said in an interview. “I certainly hope Attorney General Pruitt will agree to look into the situation and report his general findings.”
Pruitt's spokesman, Aaron Cooper, said Pruitt has received the letter and is reviewing it JoAnne Goin, director of the Department of Human Services' developmental disabilities services division, said the department also noticed a higher than average rate of deaths at the Enid facility in the summer of 2013. The Oklahoma State Department of Health and a private company reviewed the deaths and found no concerns with the level or quality of care provided to clients, Goin said.
“It's been my experience that we will have years where we have more deaths than others,” Goin said. She said part of the issue is that most of the facilities' clients were aging and had profound health issues.
Most of the transitions have gone well, Goin said, and both residents and their guardians are happy with their new arrangements in smaller settings.
The two centers, operated by the DHS developmental disabilities services division, are the only remaining state-run facilities for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults. Many individuals have been at the facilities for decades and are more than 50 years old.
Anderson said he suspects the number of deaths may have to do with the transition from the facilities.
“I don't think you can say it doesn't have anything to do with the transition,” Anderson said.
Kevan Goff-Parker, a spokeswoman for the division, said the likely reasons for the deaths are the residents' age and medical fragility, rather than transitions out of the facilities or conditions in community homes.
The state had no choice but to transfer the residents out of the Pauls Valley and Enid centers, she added.
“It isn't as if we have a choice,” Goff-Parker said. “We're following the mandate by the state.”
The future of the centers was in question for several years until the Oklahoma Commission on Human Services voted to close the facilities on Nov. 1, 2012, despite objections from parents and guardians. The commission was dissolved shortly after the vote and the department was put under the oversight of DHS Director Ed Lake, appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin.
Those who favored the closings said individuals would be healthier and happier and have more freedom in community settings. Opponents said the transition would be dangerous and private providers could not meet the needs of the clients.
DHS planned to gradually move the residents to community homes, which are residential homes where two to four clients live and are given services by private providers. The provider is paid through Medicaid. The department planned to shutter SORC in Pauls Valley by April 30 this year, and NORCE in Enid by Aug. 31, 2015. Fifteen residents remain at SORC because community-home placements have not yet been finalized. Five people remain in NORCE.
The number of staff members at both facilities has been cut since the closings were approved, Goff-Parker said. DHS is anticipating that all individuals will be moved out of NORCE by Nov. 10, and has offered voluntary buyouts to most of the center's remaining employees, she said. Around 55 state employees remain at NORCE; more remain at SORC. The facilities will not be closed until all residents are transitioned out, Goff-Parker said.
In most cases, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities do better and have more control over their own lives in community settings than in institutional ones, Goff-Parker and Goin said. DHS closely monitors and evaluates providers that serve community homes, they said.
“We love the people we care for and do everything we can to keep them safe and well,” Goff-Parker said.
“It's turning out really well for the majority of the people. A lot of the families are really happy.”