- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A leading state senator said Wednesday he’s shocked the agency that serves South Carolinians with disabilities doesn’t fine taxpayer-funded providers for not adequately protecting the vulnerable people in their care.

The Department of Disabilities and Special Needs’ contracts with private providers should threaten financial penalties. That’s probably the best way to get for-profit companies to meet expectations in caring for “citizens who are very special to all of us,” said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla.

“That’ll get people’s attention,” he said. “If you know what’s expected, and there’s accountability, then you’ll meet those expectations rather than suffer the consequences.”

In March, the agency halted all referrals to South Carolina Mentor, a company that provides home care for roughly 200 of the state’s most vulnerable adults, due to concerns about allegations of abuse.

It was the third freeze against the company since 2010. Yet, the agency renewed the company’s contract in July to care for adults with intellectual disabilities, autism, brain and spinal cord injuries. At $20 million - about 70 percent funded by the federal government - the contract was 13 percent higher than the previous year’s. Referrals remain frozen.

Agency Director Beverly Buscemi said contracts submitted for bid next year will include more consequences.

South Carolina Mentor has a pattern of turning around when “the spotlight is on them,” she said, and then eventually backsliding again.

“I’d like to have something between everything is perfect and I freeze you,” Buscemi said about options in future contracts.

Alexander, who chairs the Senate panel that writes the agency’s budget, said he can’t believe contracts don’t already provide for multiple levels of consequences and oversight. He suggested that contracts say “after two times you’re out.”

It’s not as simple as just canceling a contract, said agency spokeswoman Lois Park Mole.

“We can say, ‘OK, we’re not going to renew your contract.’ But we still have these people who need services,” she said. One difficulty is finding “providers willing to accept some of the most aggressive, most challenging consumers.”

Of the 170 allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation in South Carolina Mentor’s 74 residential homes between July 2013 and March 2016, five resulted in criminal charges. Most were unsubstantiated, according to last month’s report by Inspector General Patrick Maley.

Mentor’s internal reviews led to staff re-training in 38 cases, while 39 allegations resulted in employees being fired, he reported.

The company’s state director, Stan Butkus, left the job last month. In 2009, Butkus resigned as director of the state disabilities agency following a critical legislative audit.

Butkus said in July that Mentor has a nearly two-decade record of providing quality-of-life enhancing services, but no provider is perfect. He also had said steps taken to improve services include adding 15 positions.

Mentor has “zero tolerance for abuse and neglect of those we support,” Butkus said then.

An email seeking comment from South Carolina Mentor wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday night.

After the meeting, Alexander said he’s optimistic things are turning around at the state agency.

“It appears to me they’re finally starting to be responsive to some things that should’ve been addressed prior to this point,” he said. “But obviously there’s more work that needs to be done.”

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