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State gears to relocate residential-care patients

By ANDREW A. GREEN

This article was published March 4, 1999 at 5:18 a.m.

Just hours after a judge's ruling Wednesday, the state took steps to remove residents from three residential-care facilities accused of chronically providing unsafe, unsanitary environments for their clients, mostly the mentally ill or retarded.

Pulaski County Chancellor Collins Kilgore, denying the facilities' request for an injunction stopping the state's removal of residents and denial of new admissions, said the plaintiffs failed to prove that the state's action would cause them "irreparable harm," one of four key legal hurdles they had to clear.

The facilities' parent companies -- Sparkman Residential Care Inc., De Queen Residential Care Inc. and Victory Plus Inc. -- received notice on Feb. 17 from the state Department of Human Services' Office of Long Term Care that their licenses were being revoked because inspections showed continual problems with their facilities.

Inspectors photographed such things as exposed electrical wires, broken or filthy commodes, infestations of insects and rotting food.

The Office of Long Term Care contacted state Mental Health Services Division on Wednesday afternoon to plan how to move the residents, said Long Term Care Director Mark Hemingway. The state will start moving the residents today, and the whole process should take two or three days, he said.

Marshall Ney, an attorney for the Little Rock firm Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates and Woodyard, which represented the firms, said the removal of residents would effectively put the companies out of business.

Since the residents are the firms' only source of income, their removal means the companies may not be able to afford an administrative appeal, he said.

The firms officially requested an appeal within the 10 days allotted by law, but a hearing date has not been set.

Avanell Looney of Sparkman is sole owner of Sparkman Residential Care Inc. and co-owns the other two firms with her son, Joe Alexander of Camden. They co-own a fourth facility, Alternatives Plus in DeWitt. On Monday they received notice from the state that its license will also be revoked.

Looney declined to comment after the hearing.

To win an injunction, the plaintiffs needed to prove that the state's action against them threatened to do them irreparable harm; that the harm would be greater than the damage the injunction might cause to others; that their protest of the license revocation had merit; and that an injunction would be in the public interest.

Kilgore only addressed the issue of irrevocable harm in his decision. Since the only loss the plaintiffs could suffer by the removal of residents was monetary, their case failed on that count, he said.

Though the dispute over the alleged deficiencies ultimately didn't affect the hearing's outcome, the majority of testimony centered around whether the three facilities were safe.

Witnesses for the plaintiffs said the deficiencies cited in the three facilities were not life-threatening and did not present an emergency that warranted the residents' immediate removal. But defense witnesses said the problems their investigators found seemed dangerous to them. Many of the problems had been seen during inspections as early as last summer and were not corrected by Feb. 9, they said.

In her testimony, Looney said it is a great challenge to keep a residential-care facility in a constant state of repair because the residents who suffer from mental illnesses are prone to damaging their surroundings. It is not unusual for them to break windows or toilets or punch holes in the wall, she said.

"Any little thing can set off [an emotional outburst] in them, and they can be very destructive when they're in that state of mind," she said. "You try to stay ahead, but it doesn't always work."

As proof that she believes the facilities are safe, Looney said, she lived in the Camden Family Inn for over a year.

Rose Tabor, assistant chief program administrator for the Office of Long Term Care, said she visited the Sparkman facility and conducted an extensive review of the records and inspections of all three.

She testified that some of the defects she saw in inspectors' photographs couldn't have been the result of residents' tantrums, as the plaintiffs suggested. Thick mold and mildew and rotting carpets and floor joists could not have appeared overnight, she said.

"I was concerned that the facilities have a long history of noncompliance, and I feared for the safety and welfare of the residents," she said.

Combined, the three facilities house about 110 people. Hemingway testified that his office had arranged for a residential-care facility in Prescott to take many of the residents, and the rest will be sent to other facilities around the state.

Plaintiff's witnesses testified that moving the residents to other facilities could be traumatic for them, but Hemingway said state mental health professionals already have relationships with many of the residents and have been preparing them for the move.

"They're in a dangerous situation now that they need to be removed from," he said. "I feel like this is making the best of a poor situation and that hopefully ultimately it will be the residents . . . that benefit from this."

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