Report: Neglect at Washington state disabled facilities

SEATTLE -- Disabled people living in four Washington-state run communities have choked to death, been sexually assaulted, denied basic treatment and given the wrong medication, according to a report released Wednesday by Disability Rights Washington.

"These institutions have a track record of seriously harming and neglecting their residents," said Mark Stroh, the non-profit advocacy group's executive director.

Washington has four Residential Habilitation Centers that serve 800 people with developmental disabilities, according to the report, which was compiled using 2016 data from the state's own surveyors.

The four centers are located in Shoreline, Buckley, Yakima and Medical Lake and are run by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, Developmental Disabilities Administration.

The centers for disabled people support residents with developmental disabilities through a program designed to help each person live as independently as possible. People who live in the centers are "legally entitled to get 24-hour supervision, medical services and active treatment," the report said.

But regular inspections during 2016 reported 257 allegations of injury of unknown origin, 25 accident allegations and 16 reports on the misuse of restraints and/or seclusion.

Disability Rights Washington is calling for the creation of a panel that will identify the systemic causes of these abuses and identify solutions.

Adolfo Capestany, a spokesman for the state agency that oversees the centers, said they have responded to all safety violations that were identified by inspectors and most corrections have been implemented and others are in progress.

"The safety and well-being of our clients is paramount to the department," he said.

Choking has been an ongoing concern, the report said.

It's common for people with developmental disabilities to have trouble swallowing, so institutions provide special diets as well as assistance and supervision during meals.

"Unfortunately, Washington's state-run institutions have been cited repeatedly for failing to follow such plans and these repeated failures have resulted in deaths," the report said.

Two men living at the Rainier center choked to death almost exactly one year apart.

In August 2015, six residents went to the park for lunch with two staff members. One man's dietary plan required that his sandwiches be crust-less and cut into half-inch pieces. The plan also said staff must check his mouth between bites to be sure he swallowed before taking the next bite. At the park, staff gave the man a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with crust and without it being cut. He tried to eat the sandwich quickly, choked and died at the scene, the report said.

After that incident, off-campus trips were suspended and staff were trained on diet protocols. But in August 2016, another man choked to death on a hot dog during a Rainier center annual summer event.

One staffer was accused of raping two different female residents at two separate times in 2016, the report said. An investigation later identified two other residents who were potential sexual assault victims. Federal regulators cited the Rainier center for failing to ensure the residents were free from abuse.

Another man nearly drown during a trip to a lake when Rainier staff left him alone in his wheelchair on a dock, and the chair tipped over and fell into the water, the report said. The man was strapped in and was unable to free himself. The man almost drown until a bystander responded and cut the man free.

Medication errors were found at all the locations. Some resident charts were found to have the incorrect drug listed or the wrong dosage, according to the report.

"The report shines a bright light on some very serious human rights violations," said Ed Holen, Executive Director of the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council. "Unfortunately, the findings of the report are nothing new."

Sue Elliot, Executive Director of the Arc of Washington, which advocates for the disabled, said the average cost of housing a resident at these facilities is $611.00 per day, or $223,000 annually.

"You would think there is sufficient staff to comply with the federal requirements and prevent these ongoing instances of abuse and neglect," she said.