May 31, 2012
( Source: Craig Schneider and Andria Simmons The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT) —
In the obscure world of personal care homes, the worst abuse of vulnerable adults often happens in unlicensed facilities that state officials often can’t find, don’t inspect and have few resources to shut down, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.
The AJC found cases of residents being beaten with belts and burned with curling irons, kept in basements with buckets for toilets, robbed of their public assistance and pension checks, and shuttled from home to home as operators kept a step ahead of the law.
Unlicensed homes “are what keep me up nights,” said Brian Looby, director of the Division of Healthcare Facility Regulation within the state Department of Community Health. “We just don’t know they’re out there until somebody lets us know.”
In an ongoing examination of personal care homes that aid adults, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has analyzed thousands of inspection reports as well as interviewing state and local officials, social service providers, advocates for vulnerable adults and residents and their families.
Personal care homes are required to be licensed and regularly inspected by DCH. But advocates say they see a growing number of unlicensed homes — perhaps hundreds around the state — operating outside the law, unregulated by any agency.
Unlicensed homes tend to charge less than licensed facilities, but they are often shabbier and offer fewer services, said Mary Twomey, co-director of the National Center on Elder Abuse.
“This is the underground gray economy,” said Twomey, who said the problem is not unique to Georgia. “These can be some of the most invisible citizens.”
Georgia officials say a new law that takes effect July 1 will finally empower them to crack down on rogue operators.
The law for the first time criminalizes the operation of an unlicensed personal care home, making the first instance a misdemeanor and the second a felony. It also allows the state to immediately impose fines.
Beforehand, when an unlicensed home came to light, the state simply gave the owner a month or two to get a license. The new law also gives the Georgia Bureau of Investigation authority to investigate unlicensed personal care homes.
“We’re not going to allow this practice to continue,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, a nurse who sponsored the law. Under the old law, she said, “there was no punishment.”
However, the GBI has few resources to devote to the task, and no other agency is charged with rooting out illegal homes and shutting them down.
State regulators must get a warrant to enter an unlicensed home without the owner’s permission; they have obtained such warrants only twice in the past 12 months, Looby said. In many of the cases, officials said, the owners allowed regulators to enter without a warrant.
How to help
To report abuse, neglect or exploitation of elderly, developmentally disabled or mentally ill adults
• In a home or residence: Call Division of Aging Services, Adult Protective Services 1-888-774-0152 or 911
• In a personal care home: Call Healthcare Facility Regulation (HFR) 1-800-878-6442.
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