Tahlequah Daily Press

Z_CNHI News Service

January 3, 2014

Documents shed light on how NORCE deals with abuse, neglect

ENID, Okla. — In the past five years at Northern Oklahoma Resource Center of Enid, at least seven employees were disciplined for abuse or neglect.

Three of the workers, who each had direct care and supervision over the developmentally disabled, were fired for their actions.

In one 2012 case, a resident nearly had her thumb amputated when it was caught in a door. One of her caretakers had sent her on an unsupervised trip to the restroom, even though he knew someone should be in visual contact with her at all times. The client was rushed to the hospital to have the thumb surgically reattached.

The employee was suspended without pay for one week, according to documents released by the Department of Human Services. State records show he continued working for DHS for another year.

The information was gleaned from a public records request submitted in July 2013. The records were released this week after a lengthy review by agency attorneys to determine what information in the files was public.

In a five-year time span between 2008 and 2012, there were 144 total referrals, or accusations, made to DHS’ Office of Client Advocacy. Fewer than one-fourth of those were confirmed cases of abuse or neglect.

Only seven disciplinary reports are available, but they are the ones that show the heaviest penalties — suspension without pay and outright dismissal.

DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said it’s common to receive many more allegations than there are verified cases. Sometimes, a report will be made when there is no evidence to back it up.

“They’re not required to have proof or be able to prove that. If it falls under a certain category, they have to report it,” Powell said.

If a worker or supervisor even suspects that an action or behavior is inappropriate, he or she is required to notify someone. Then it’s up to the OCA investigators to find out if there was any actual abuse or neglect.

“We also see that in child abuse and neglect records. We receive almost twice as many calls to the child and abuse hotlines” than there are verifiable cases, Powell said.

That’s a good thing, she added.

“We want to see more reports. We want to see people acting on behalf of the safety of the residents,” said Powell.

In 2011, a direct care specialist at NORCE was fired for misconduct, neglect, maltreatment and neglect with injury after she watched a client hurt himself.

According to the disciplinary record, the caregiver saw a resident hitting himself in the head until he started bleeding. A State Department of Health surveyor was present and saw the client hit himself for 15 minutes while in the employee’s presence. The investigative report states the surveyor asked if the employee could intervene “and she declined, stating (the client) does that and can’t be stopped.”

The employee, however, had been trained five months earlier on intervention techniques specifically meant for that client. She also testified to a hearing officer she didn’t know the surveyor and thought the person was “new staff.”

The same employee had previous reprimands for misconduct, discourteous treatment and unsatisfactory performance.

DHS holds its employees to a higher standard, Powell said, especially the ones caring for children and the disabled. Anything that comes close to abuse or neglect is not tolerated, she said.

“Many times employees are disciplined for things that maybe the general public wouldn’t view as a big deal,” she said. “But because we are entrusted with the care of vulnerable adults and children, we have to hold our employees to a high standard.”

No criminal or civil charges have been brought against any of the workers who received a final disciplinary report during the time period examined. Although their identities were not redacted from the disciplinary reports and are public record, the Enid News & Eagle decided against publishing their names in the context of this story.

NORCE is scheduled to end operations in 2015, which already has forced some residents’ guardians to seek non-institutional housing and care.

Along with the ones listed above DHS released five other reports. They are the only ones filed between 2008 and 2012 that are available to the public. They include:

• In 2010, a direct care specialist was suspended without pay for 24 hours for leaving a client alone in the bathroom. The client was found several minutes later hitting his head against the floor, which caused a cut to the forehead. A month later, the worker left the same client alone in a van for 20 minutes to care for another resident, although there were no injuries reported.

• A direct care specialist was accused of tipping dining room chairs back with residents still sitting in them, “which frightened the residents causing them to scream or otherwise display mental anguish.” A hearing in 2010 found the employee did not intend to inflict mental anguish, but created an unreasonable risk of harm. For neglect, he was suspended without pay for one work week.

• In 2009, a worker was fired after grabbing a client by the loops of her protective helmet, pulling her up from a couch and shouting, “Get up.” This incident occurred while training a new staffer. According to DHS, the same staffer already had been suspended previously for maltreatment and verbal abuse.

The author of the disciplinary report spoke of the agency’s tolerance to mistreatment.

“NORCE is responsible for the well-being and safety of the individuals we serve and based upon your multiple confirmations of abuse we can not trust the safety of our clients in your care,” NORCE Director Sally Randall wrote.

• A former recreational therapist was suspended without pay for 24 hours for neglect in 2009. According to the documents, she supervised an out-of-town trip and failed to ensure sufficient room for the ride back. Ten clients and six staffers were crammed into two vans, and there weren’t enough wheelchair tie-downs, the report stated. At one point, a wheelchair tipped over and landed on a staffer, who was riding on the van’s floorboard.

• Another direct care specialist was terminated in 2008 before his probationary employment period expired. There was no reason given.

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