Troubled home's dangers known to state

County's plea brought no action until a schizophrenic wandered, never to be found

Staff WriterMarch 13, 2009 

— Cleveland County social workers begged state officials in Raleigh to take over a troubled assisted-living home less than three months before a resident with diabetes and schizophrenia wandered away last September, never to be seen again, state records show.

A lawyer for the center, Unique Living, tried without success Thursday to get a state advisory panel to trim recommended penalties of $40,000 -- a record that is the sum of two fines that each hit the state maximum.

After the hearing, state human services officials defended themselves against arguments that they failed to protect the residents of Unique Living, noting that county social workers could themselves have removed residents from the home in Fallston, about an hour northwest of Charlotte.

Officials from the state Department of Health and Human Services also weathered sharp criticism both from Cleveland County officials and from relatives of Mouy Tang, the woman who disappeared at age 46.

"I think it's horrendous," Tang's niece, Raleigh accountant SueLee Waller, said Thursday. "The state represents the people. I don't think the people want this kind of activity going on."

Relatives said they have not given up hope that they'll find Tang, who's been missing for more than half a year.

Last June, county leaders pleaded with the department to seize management control of Unique Living. In a June 17 letter to Barbara Ryan, in charge of licensing assisted-living centers, Cleveland County officials cited a strong risk of injury and harm to residents -- most with severe mental illness -- because of mismanagement at the "aged former school building."

The department did not take that unprecedented step, but closed the place after Tang's disappearance, said Jeff Horton, Ryan's boss and head of the Division of Health Service Regulation. Horton disputed family and county statements that the division should have taken control of the center.

"When you take over a troubled facility that has financial problems, somebody's got to think about how you pay the person," an arrangement that's not spelled out under state law, Horton said in a phone interview.

Disappearance, action

State inspectors who visited the center in July found new management and conditions apparently improved, Horton said. He also noted that county officials have workers who are specifically charged with protecting vulnerable adults.

"If things were that serious, why didn't Adult Protective Services go in and protect the residents?" Horton asked.

"When the resident was missing, we went in very soon and found that conditions posed an immediate threat to resident health and safety. And we shut it down."

Representatives of Cleveland County Social Services said the state never made a formal response to their request. County social workers had 48 hours to find new homes for Unique Living residents when the state closed it, they said.

"I think that it's sad that we requested assistance from the state and what we received was the task of placing 60 mentally ill residents in places that may or may not have had the ability to take care of them," said Tom Ensley, adult services supervisor in Cleveland County.

On Thursday, members of the advisory Penalty Review Committee recommended that the Division of Health Service Regulation, a part of Health and Human Services, fine the center $40,000 for violations that include a lack of door alarms and failure to supervise residents properly. The committee also recommended another $10,000 fine for letting residents smoke virtually at will.

State human services managers will ultimately decide on any penalty against Unique Living.

An attorney for Unique Living, asking for lowered penalties, said the center was in the process of being sold and had taken on new management when Tang disappeared.

"In my personal opinion, that is not enough," Karen Ellis, director of Cleveland County Social Services, said of the record penalty.

Waller, Tang's niece, said family members plan to sue the home and advocate for changes in adult-care supervision under state law. She said Tang was a beloved family member for whom they've conducted numerous searches.

"Our ultimate goal is to change things," she said.

tgold@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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