- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

SOMERSET, Ky. (AP) — Dee Sumpter carried out groceries at Kroger and sewed elastic onto women’s underwear at a factory before getting a job at Kentucky’s largest center for mentally retarded adults.

Jennifer Gregory was a cashier at McDonald’s. William Crabtree drove a delivery truck. Rita Phelps was a hairdresser.

All of them applied to the Communities at Oakwood, a state-run home with about 260 developmentally disabled adults, and were hired as patient aides even though they had no experience, according to personnel files obtained by the Associated Press.

Now they are among 15 Oakwood employees arrested in recent months on charges of abusing patients.

Mental health specialists say low wages, inexperience, poor training and a lack of interest in the well-being of patients often contribute to abuse and neglect at such institutions.

“It’s true that because of low pay, the facilities are often not selective,” said Linda Hickson, a professor of health and behavior studies at Columbia University. “They often get people who have no background at all to deal with people with challenging behaviors.”

State regulators found evidence that patients at Oakwood were kicked, punched, pushed into walls or hurled to the floor. One patient left unsupervised during a bath drowned; another choked to death on a hot dog. No charges were filed in the two deaths.

Caretakers are expected to help patients with bathing, using the toilet, dressing and eating. Salaries for caretakers at Oakwood or other state institutions in Kentucky range from $16,000 to $24,000. Nationwide, the average is $21,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Caretakers often are faced with patient outbursts that require skill and training to handle, said Louise Lynch, director of developmental disabilities at the Austin-Travis County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center in Texas. Couple those dangers with low wages and the common feeling of being overworked, and you “could be in an abusive situation.”

Critics have called on the state to shut down Oakwood, but officials said they plan instead to evaluate Oakwood’s hiring and training practices.

Jackie Bouyea, director of Oakwood, said that the hiring system is adequate and that the workers who have been arrested are “the exception” among Oakwood’s 1,300 employees. A private company, Liberty HealthCare Corp., manages Oakwood under a contract with the state.

“We’re putting more emphasis on supervisors,” Miss Bouyea said. “We are giving them additional training. We want them to know that they must report problems and that they should be very sensitive to interactions with residents.”

Nevertheless, state regulators have tagged Oakwood with 21 citations in as many months for accusations of abuse and neglect. By the last week in July, Oakwood had been fined $1.4 million for not correcting health and safety problems.

Six of the 15 arrested employees have been fired. The others have been suspended with pay or assigned to laundry duty pending internal investigations.

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