State report describes ongoing problems at Lexington home for disabled men

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comMay 3, 2014 

A state agency released a scathing report last week detailing ongoing problems involving bed bugs, poor living conditions and other problems at a troubled group home for disabled men in Lexington.

The Protection and Advocacy report on the Messner Home also questions whether the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services properly investigated abuse at the mostly unlicensed and unregulated home off Versailles Road.

Despite Protection and Advocacy's concerns, which date to 2011, the state also continued to place men who were under state guardianship at the troubled home, the 18-page report shows.

The future of the home is uncertain after it was sold to a longtime employee in late February. Martha Bell, who assumed ownership of Messner, has applied for a state boarding home license. The application is pending with the state Department for Public Health.

Bell, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has previously said that many of the problems raised in the report — inadequate bathing facilities, lack of bedding, bed bugs and uncleanliness on the campus — have been addressed.

State health inspectors will return May 9 for another inspection. If the home passes that inspection, it will be licensed as a boarding home.

That's what Protection and Advocacy Director Marsha Hockensmith has wanted since the agency first became aware of problems at Messner Home in August 2011.

"It has been a long and often frustrating journey, and our primary concern has been that Messner is a congregate setting for persons with disabilities, and oversight is a must," Hockensmith said last week. "We are pleased that the current administration has taken steps to address this longstanding issue."

A fight for regulation

Protection and Advocacy, an independent state agency that protects and promotes the rights of people with disabilities, first began interviewing residents at Messner Home in August 2011 as part of a larger project to monitor Social Security benefits for people with disabilities.

The agency found substandard living conditions and discovered that most of the campus had no oversight, even though people with serious mental illness and varying abilities lived together in a congregate setting. Some of the men there were on the sex offender registry.

Messner Home consists of three buildings — one at 708 Hill Rise Court, a four-bedroom bungalow at 706 Hill Rise Court and a two-story white house and garage at 1702 Versailles Road — on two adjoining pieces of property.

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services typically licenses and regulates homes where the mentally ill and mentally disabled live in a group setting. One of the three Messner buildings is overseen by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a residential home for veterans, and that building is inspected. But two of the buildings have not had oversight for decades.

In 1996, the state took the Messner Home to court after an investigation found "filthy mattresses, insect infestation, soiled rooms and physical plant deterioration."

But a Fayette Circuit Court judge ruled that because one of the buildings was regulated by the VA, Messner did not have to be licensed or regulated by the state. A 1998 state Court of Appeals case upheld the lower court's decision.

Many of the problems regulators reported in 1996 were present when Protection and Advocacy returned to the facility in 2011. Protection and Advocacy staff made multiple visits to Messner between August 2011 and 2013, the report shows.

The report shows repeated problems with bed-bug infestations, exposed insulation and pipes, holes in the walls and multiple broken windows.

Inspections by Protection and Advocacy over the next two years revealed other problems with the care of the residents, including a diabetes patient who did not receive special diet and a mentally ill resident from another country who had lived there for two years who had never been told that there were other housing options. Protection and Advocacy interviewed an 18-year-old who had aged out of foster care but was not receiving mental health services.

Protection and Advocacy kept pressing state officials to either shut the facility down or make the former owner, Ralph Messner, apply for a boarding home license during the past three years.

The report notes that there were frequent meetings between Protection and Advocacy and state officials to address problems there. There were some improvements. The bed-bug problem was addressed in 2012, the report shows.

Ralph Messner eventually applied for a license but was denied this year because of a previous criminal conviction. That's when the home was transferred to Bell.

Failure to protect

Reports about possible abuse by staff at Messner were not properly investigated by Adult Protective Services, according to the state's report. Four complaints were filed with adult protection services since Aug. 26, 2011, but none had been substantiated, the report said.

That was in part because Messner was one of the few places some of the residents placed there could live, Protection and Advocacy staff were told during a meeting with adult protection services.

"APS participants expressed concern that if Messner was closed, there would be no place for the men to go," the report said.

In December 2012, it was reported to adult protective services that a Messner resident stated that someone had hit him and broken his foot. Protection and Advocacy staff became aware of the allegation in January 2013 via a different resident at Messner who had witnessed the alleged assault. When Protection and Advocacy staff asked whether adult protection had investigated the alleged incident, the investigator said she had not interviewed witnesses — only the injured resident, who could not explain what had caused his injury. When Protection and Advocacy pressed the investigator to return to the campus to investigate, the investigator interviewed only one staff member. That staff member was married to the alleged perpetrator.

Protection and Advocacy urged adult protection to return to the facility a third time. The investigator finally interviewed the perpetrator and the witness. Ultimately, the investigation substantiated only verbal abuse, the report says.

The perpetrator continued to work at Messner, the report said. The name of the alleged abuser was not released in the report.

More recently, in May 2013, Protection and Advocacy staff found a resident who was "sunburned with clothes falling off and bruises and scratches on his eye and cheek. The man was confused and frightened and could not explain his injuries," the report said.

Again, Adult Protective Services was called, but investigators said caretaker neglect was unsubstantiated because Messner staff were not in a "care-taking role" at the time the abuse occurred. Protection and Advocacy staff argued that state abuse law says that someone who is not in a care-taking role can still be charged with abuse.

"Despite several requests, as of the release of this report, Protection and Advocacy has not received any further information from APS about this investigation," the report said.

A written statement from Adult Protective Services says the department took the allegations of abuse at Messner seriously. Adult Protective Services is part of the Department for Community Based Services, which is part of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

"While DCBS cannot address this specific case due to client protected information, the department assures that concerns raised by Protection and Advocacy with regard to Messner were immediately addressed," the statement said.

Protection and Advocacy began to voice its concerns to the cabinet regarding conditions at the facility as early as 2011.

Yet the state continued to place men with state-appointed guardians at the facility. Hockensmith noted that state regulations do not allow people with state guardians to be placed in boarding homes because of the lack of oversight. But in February 2012, there were 12 people with state-appointed guardians living at Messner home, the report found.

All men who have state-appointed guardians have now been removed from the home.

"The wards of the state who resided at Messner all had a history of serious mental health issues as well as histories of violence, which made placement challenging," the department that oversees state guardianship said in a statement. "Messner was able to provide supervision for this population as well as transportation to medical appointments and mental health treatment to attempt to keep the wards and the community safe."

However, the report also raises questions on whether state-appointed guardians were doing enough for some of residents there.

According to Hockensmith and other Protection and Advocacy staff, guardianship staff frequently say they are unable to move people out of Messner because those residents have prior criminal histories or have failed at other placements. But an 18-year-old who was residing at the facility had neither a criminal history nor behaviors that would preclude him from living somewhere else.

With Protection and Advocacy's help, the 18-year-old was transferred to a personal care home in March 2014 after he had been at Messner for more than 2½ years, the report noted

Protection and Advocacy staff had to press guardianship to help the man receive the three credits he needed to get his high school diploma.

"Then there was a problem because they didn't have the money for a cap and gown, so we helped with that," said Heidi Schissler, legal director at Protection and Advocacy.

Moving forward

Bell has said that in addition to new roofs, new windows and other work on the three homes, she is working on new standards for care at the facility. Bell said she is also trying to ensure that residents receive the mental health treatment they need.

Bell said in late March that 40 men live there. At one time, there were more than 73 men. Many ended up there because there was nowhere else for them to go, Hockensmith said.

As part of a separate legal settlement, the cabinet is supposed to increase its housing and other supportive services for people with mental illness. People at Messner would qualify, Hockensmith said.

The system can change, she said.

"Many of the men came to Messner due to Kentucky's historical failure to invest in services and housing options for people with mental illness," Hockensmith said.

Beth Musgrave: (859)231-3205. Twitter:@HLCityhall

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