13 Investigates uncovers pattern of abuse, neglect in group homes for the disabled

Anthony Harris is a non-verbal cerebral palsy patient who was left bloodied and beaten in his group home. His caregiver plead guilty to causing his injuries. (Courtesy Scott Benkie)
Published:
Updated:

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Indiana's most vulnerable residents are often cared for in group homes with round the clock staff.

No one disputes it can be a tough job, but when you have an industry with high turn over rates and improperly trained workers, group homes can become places of extreme abuse.

13 Investigates' Sandra Chapman uncovered troubling issues for a provider with a network of group homes across the state and the country.

One of these group homes is in a house located on Atwood Court in Fishers. The home is operated by ResCare, one of Indiana's largest residential care providers, and is where Indiana's most vulnerable are supposed to be protected.

Records show that protection wasn't extended to Anthony Harris who lived at the ResCare group home in Fishers. Harris has cerebral palsy and is completely disabled and non-verbal.

A caregiver admitted to viciously beating Harris in 2017.

Brutal pictures show what happened to Anthony Harris

In this photo provided by the Harris family attorney, Anthony Harris recovers in the hospital after the alleged attack in 2017. (Courtesy Scott Benkie)
In this photo provided by the Harris family attorney, Anthony Harris recovers in the hospital after the alleged attack in 2017. (Courtesy Scott Benkie)

Emergency workers found Harris bloodied, beaten and, according to his attorney, tortured inside his room. He suffered all of the injuries at the hands of Michael Anderson, the man ResCare hired to care for him.

Emergency room nurses from Community Hospital were the first to alert police.

In a 911 call obtained by 13 Investigates, a nurse tells the dispatcher: "His face is all bruised up. His eye is swollen and the CAT scan, it seems like he might have been abused in the group home or somewhere. And there's another patient that came from the same group home, same situation. His face is all bruised up," she said, referring to Harris' roommate who was also attacked.

"There was blood everywhere. It had been splattered. It was a horrific scene," said Scott Benkie.

Anthony Harris' attorney said the cerebral palsy patient was tortured in his group home. (Courtesy Scott Benkie)
Anthony Harris' attorney said the cerebral palsy patient was tortured in his group home. (Courtesy Scott Benkie)

Benkie is the Harris family attorney and described what Harris' room looked like the morning of May 29, 2017.

The discovery still evokes disbelief for the attorney who has seen the disturbing photographs of Harris dozens of times.

"The sheer magnitude of what was done to an absolute helpless person. We found out that he had been tortured previously, his fingers had been bent back and broken," said Benkie from his Indianapolis law office.

Michael Anderson was charged and plead guilty to criminal battery in the case and sentenced to six years in prison.

13 Investigates has learned ResCare now has a confidential settlement with the Harris family.

But troubling questions remain, like how Michael Anderson was even hired by ResCare?

Caregiver Had Prior Convictions When Hired By ResCare

Michael Anderson plead guilty to attacking a cerebral palsy patient. (Hamilton County Sheriff's Department)
Michael Anderson plead guilty to attacking a cerebral palsy patient. (Hamilton County Sheriff's Department)

Court documents show Anderson had prior criminal convictions, including a drug offense and an animal cruelty conviction when ResCare hired him.

According to Indiana law, animal cruelty is defined as "intentionally beating a vertebrate animal."

In the animal cruelty case, Anderson plead guilty in 2012 to a criminal misdemeanor.

Then in 2014 and 2015, he was arrested on two separate drug possession charges. As part of a plea deal he admitted guilt in one case and got the other case dismissed. Even after Anderson was hired, a ResCare worker reportedly told management Anderson was smoking marijuana on the job, according to Benkie.

"Armed with that information, how could you in good conscience hire someone and have them entrusted to a person and persons who are totally helpless?" Benkie asked with dismay.

In court filings prior to the settlement of the Harris case, Benkie accused ResCare of failing to conduct a thorough background check of Anderson, including his criminal history. ResCare denied that claim.

Benkie told 13 Investigates, ResCare did a background check on Anderson and decided to hire him anyway, despite the convictions that he believes should have been red flags.

"You put him in an environment where you allow him to prey on those people. It's predatory. That's just absolutely mind boggling," Benkie said.

13 Investigates asked ResCare about it's hiring practices and how it could allow someone with prior convictions for animal cruelty, care for vulnerable residents.

ResCare did not provide a direct response to the question, but a spokesman did release a statement to 13 Investigates.

"We follow very stringent, state-regulated hiring practices and have been recognized and nationally accredited for the significant training we provide our teams," wrote Barnard Baker, a ResCare spokesman. "Unexpected and unfortunate incidents do sometimes occur when working with complex populations."

ResCare Employee Caught on Camera Beating Client Had Prior Assault Convictions

13 Investigates has learned ResCare settled another similar lawsuit filed in San Luis Obispo, California.

In that case, a 20-year-old man with severe autism was attacked. According to an article in the Santa Maria Sun, the caregiver is seen on a hidden video camera grabbing the client and violently lifting him out of a seat, before they fall behind a table out of view.

The man's mother filed a lawsuit that revealed the worker had previously entered pleas of no contest to two separate misdemeanor assault charges. In one of the cases, the worker grabbed a 19-year old by the throat and threatened him with a hunting knife. Both convictions resulted before he was hired by ResCare.

Jeffrey Stulberg, the attorney representing that family, confirmed to 13 Investigates the lawsuit against ResCare was also resolved through a confidential settlement.

According to ResCare's spokesman, the company is "deeply concerned any time an individual (ResCare) supports is compromised or harmed."

ResCare identifies itself as the nation's largest provider of healthcare services to people with disabilities and the largest privately-owned home care company.

Baker told 13 Investigates ResCare has been working with Indiana families for 30 years and serves more than 2,000 individuals. The company employs 2,700 workers to provide direct care service to the state's most medically complex and high-need populations.

Accountability for ResCare in Indiana

A ResCare building in Sheridan, Indiana. (WTHR Photo)
A ResCare building in Sheridan, Indiana. (WTHR Photo)

The direct care for Hoosiers with high-need medical care is often paid for by Medicaid dollars, provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or CMS.

While Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), oversees the licensing of long-term residential care facilities like ResCare, the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) is responsible for inspections and making sure the facilities are operating under state and federal guidelines. It's outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding between FSSA and ISDH.

If violations are found, the company must provide a correction plan to the state health department.

Once that plan is approved, state inspectors return to the home or facility to see if the violations have been corrected.

The process can last more than a year. If the issues have not been addressed, ISDH can report non-compliance to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That non-compliance can affect the company's Medicaid certification. But only the FSSA can impose state sanctions like fines or license revocation.

Despite Investigations, Criminal Convictions and Lawsuits ResCare Not Cited for Any Violations

According to the state health department, 23 ResCare facilities operating in Indiana have been the subject of investigations. Not all complaints were substantiated due to a lack of evidence.

But at the Fisher's home where Anthony Harris was beaten, there are no state inspection reports according to the State Department of Health.

The agency told 13 Investigates that particular ResCare property is classified as a Medicaid waiver home.

Waiver homes have three or fewer residents living there and are not licensed, regulated or surveyed by the Indiana State Department of Health like other residential group homes.

Oversight of waiver homes falls solely on FSSA's Bureau of Developmental Disability Services or BDDS.

Despite the criminal action and lawsuit, ResCare was not cited for any violation.

In fact, over the last three and a half years, ResCare has had no citations.

"Between dates January 1, 2016 and June 30, 2019, BDDS has not cited ResCare for violations occurring in supervised group living sites," said Jim Gavin, FSSA Spokesman.

While no citations may have been issued, 13 Investigates has discovered Harris isn't the only resident to suffer as a result of inadequate supervision.

Charles Shelton (L) allegedly pushed a patient down a flight of stairs. Megan Catherine Akers (R) admitted to battering a man with severe autism. (Lake County Sheriff's Department)
Charles Shelton (L) allegedly pushed a patient down a flight of stairs. Megan Catherine Akers (R) admitted to battering a man with severe autism. (Lake County Sheriff's Department)

In Hobart, five ResCare employees were charged with battery and neglect of a dependent in three separate incidents at two group homes in June 2016.

According to an attorney representing an incapacitated patient, the man suffered broken ribs after Charles Shelton, the man's caregiver, pushed him down a flight of stairs. Shelton plead guilty to a single battery charge.

In the other case, 33-year-old Megan Catherine Akers admitted to battering a 27-year old-man with severe autism by striking him with a clipboard. Akers was sentenced to 18 months in a Lake County community corrections program.

A lawsuit is now pending against Akers, Shelton and ResCare for both incidents, alledging a "larger pattern of abuse stemming from the failure of ResCare to hire appropriate staff and to train (them) properly."

In Fort Wayne, a former ResCare employee is serving a four year prison sentence after pleading guilty to sexual misconduct with a minor.

Amy Walls pleaded guilty to battering and sexually molesting a child. (Montgomery County Sheriff's Department)
Amy Walls plead guilty to battering and sexually molesting a child. (Montgomery County Sheriff's Department)

According to court records, Amy Walls battered and sexually molested a 14-year old resident under her watch.

And in Indianapolis, state health inspectors found a ResCare group home with 22 federal and state safety violations last August, some of them life and death issues. Twenty-two violations is four times over the state average of deficiencies typically found during an inspection.

13 Investigates obtained the complaint by the State Department of Health about a client who walked out of a home on Delbrook Drive undetected. He was supposed to be watched around the clock.

According to the report he "(eloped) from the group home while on one to one staff supervision, falling and sustaining a seizure on the group home's driveway without staff's knowledge."

A neighbor eventually found him, alerted the staff and called 911.

"He was banging his head on the ground," read the report.

Claudia Williamson owns a home down the street from where it all happened and was stunned to hear a resident had slipped out and hurt himself.

"I didn't even know what happened to the resident. So I'm so sorry to hear that," she told 13 Investigates.

Background Checks Don't Report All Violent Crimes

Under State law, background checks do not include misdemeanor convictions for battery, violence, or other troubling behaviors. In the cases 13 Investigates cited in Indiana and California, both workers took plea deals for misdemeanor charges.

The felony crimes screened under Indiana law are:

  • A sex crime
  • Battery
  • Neglect
  • Abuse
  • Exploitation of an endangered adult or of a child
  • Failure to report: Battery, Neglect, Abuse, or Exploitation of an endangered adult or of a child
  • Theft if the person’s conviction for theft occurred less than ten (10) years before employment application h. Criminal conversion
  • Criminal deviate conduct
  • Murder
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Involuntary manslaughter
  • Offense relating to alcohol or a controlled substance

State Health Inspectors Order ResCare to Implement Procedures to Prohibit Mistreatment, Neglect and Abuse At Local Group Home

The Delbrook Drive case was substantiated as "staff neglect" by the Indiana Department of Health.

The worker who failed to keep watch was terminated. The client who walked out was moved to another residential care location while ResCare promised to provide more staff training.

State inspectors concluded ResCare "must develop and implement...procedures that prohibit mistreatment, neglect or abuse" at that group home site.

But according to FSSA, no fines were issued.

ResCare maintains in its statement to 13 Investigates, "We always take immediate action any time a concerning incident occurs outside of normal service delivery...This includes self-reporting and cooperation with the state and all relevant authorities to swiftly address any issues."

13 Investigates asked the FSSA about its accountability for ResCare.

No one would speak with 13 Investigates on camera, but Gavin told 13 Investigates, "Between dates January 1, 2016 and June 30, 2019, BDDS is unaware of any plan of correction not rectified by ResCare through ISDH nor any reports of noncompliance to CMS."

Yet attorneys across the country told 13 Investigates, there's a systemic problem that demands better hiring practices and more accountability.

REPORT A COMPLAINT ABOUT A HEALTH FACILITY WITH THE ISDH

FSSA's Response to 13 Investigates

Jim Gavin, FSSA spokesman, released a statement to 13 Investigates:

"No one receiving services from FSSA should experience abuse or neglect. For that reason, FSSA uses state and federal law to establish provider standards and oversight systems to monitor the delivery of services. In cases of abuse, additional collaboration with local Adult Protective Services and prosecutors routinely occurs, which is critical in ensuring perpetrators – like the one you describe – are convicted, ensuring they aren’t able to work with vulnerable populations in the future.

The employee to which you refer was terminated and charged by law enforcement. FSSA is pleased that the prosecutor pursued and obtained a felony conviction and that, in this instance, our partnership with adult protective services and the local prosecutor yielded an appropriate result.

Indiana law requires providers to conduct criminal background checks. The law lists the past felony convictions that could preclude employment. It is FSSA’s understanding that ResCare performed the required background check on this individual before hiring."

ResCare's Response to 13 Investigates

Barnard Baker from ResCare Media Relations released a statement to 13 Investigates with their response to our investigation. The complete statement is:

"ResCare Community Living is proud to serve more than 2,000 individuals throughout Indiana. Our on-the-ground team of 2,700 dedicated staff provide more than five million hours of direct care services to the state's most medically complex and high-need populations each year. While the work of these caregivers is difficult and often overlooked, they provide an essential service which helps many people live their life in preferred community settings, as opposed to institutions.

Though we deliver thousands of positive outcomes every day, we are deeply concerned any time an individual we support is compromised or harmed. ResCare strives for conscientious and compassionate care in the services provided, promoting people-first principles at all times.

We follow very stringent, state-regulated hiring practices and have been recognized and nationally accredited for the significant training we provide our teams. However, as is the case throughout the health care industry, unexpected and unfortunate incidents do sometimes occur when working with complex populations.

We always take immediate action any time a concerning incident occurs outside of normal service delivery with an individual we support. This includes self-reporting and cooperation with the state and all relevant authorities to swiftly address any issues. That was the case with each of the dated matters WTHR raised with our agency.

ResCare has served as a strong and trusted partner to the state and Indiana families for more than 30 years, and we will continue to meet the complex and unique needs of the individuals we serve for many years to come."

Filed under: