Most Howe workers moved to other facilities

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By most measures, the Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park was the worst-run state facility for developmentally disabled adults in Illinois, a place where alleged employee neglect and improper care were blamed for more than 30 deaths and cost the state millions in added expenses over the last five years.

The problems at Howe were so pervasive and hopeless that the state shut it down in June once the last remaining residents found homes elsewhere.

Despite this dysfunction, and deep cuts to social services in the state budget, not a single Howe manager or employee was fired as a result of the closing, officials said. Records obtained by the Tribune show that nearly 400 former Howe workers — more than half of the facility's roughly 750 employees in 2008 — are employed at other state facilities for the developmentally disabled.

A few of Howe's high-ranking administrators were awarded short-term contracts with the state to help in the transition process. Dozens more employees were transferred to work in other state departments. Thirty-six chose to retire with full pensions and benefits.

More than 200 Howe employees simply chose to walk away, despite a union agreement that guaranteed them roughly the same job at the same salary in another facility.

For some who fought to close Howe, the handling of these employees showed an "appalling lack of accountability" and underscored the problems the state Department of Human Services, which oversaw Howe, faces when it tries to fire union employees for poor performance. And many now worry about Howe's culture of ineptitude spreading to other state facilities already teetering on the edge.

"Considering the poor quality of care, we've never seen an aggressive effort to hold people accountable," said Zena Naiditch, president of Equip for Equality, a federally mandated watchdog for disabled care in Illinois. "This is a system without any real checks and balances, and we knew this could happen in the type of union environment we have in Illinois."

Those who supported Howe say that isn't true and that employees kept their jobs because the state failed to prove that neglect and abuse were rampant.

"If no one's being fired and everyone's (being transferred), then obviously the care can't be that bad," said state Sen. Maggie Crotty, D-Oak Forest, a strong supporter of Howe.

Anne Irving, director of public policy for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represented Howe staff, placed much of the blame on Howe's management. Employees were regularly evaluated and disciplined as needed, Irving said, adding that it's not uncommon for union workers to take jobs at other state facilities when theirs is shut down.

The difference at Howe, critics say, is that the state was forced to close it down because of the failures of employees to provide adequate care.

"How can you think that simply moving Howe's employees to another facility is going to fix the problem?" said Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc of Illinois, an advocacy group for disabled adults.

Lilia Teninty, director of the DHS division of developmental disabilities, declined to comment on Howe's former employees. Through the agency's spokesman, Tom Green, Teninty said she didn't "feel that discussing this topic is necessary" and reiterated Howe's closing was due to "systemic problems."

Set back on 300 once-finely groomed acres in southwest suburban Tinley Park, the Howe center was a source of controversy in the statewide battle over disabled care. Howe's population, which once exceeded 300, had steadily dwindled over the last five years as accusations of abuse and neglect grew. In the same time period, Howe was a revolving door of leadership, with at least five different directors.

In pushing to close Howe in 2008 — just the second state-run facility for profoundly disabled adults forced to shut down in more than 25 years — Teninty and others told lawmakers that problems there were "pervasive" and "unfixable." Singling out and removing the worst employees wasn't the solution, Teninty argued, because the failure to provide a safe living environment for residents extended from the top down.

Investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the state office of the inspector general backed that up, citing a record of questionable care that put residents at risk.

According to the investigations, one Howe resident in his 50s died after employees gave him medication but failed to monitor his vital signs after he sustained a serious head injury, an elderly woman died within hours of undergoing a Pap smear during which she was restrained by staff and an ailing man died in his wheelchair and sat there for more than an hour before anyone noticed.

Two lawsuits filed in Cook County in the last year allege that Howe employees and on-duty doctors failed to prevent residents from choking to death.

Instances like these prompted the federal government in 2007 to rescind Howe's Medicaid certification, stripping the center of nearly $30 million a year. That forced the state to double its contributions to keep Howe open, to roughly $60 million a year.

"I don't want to paint the picture that every (employee) was a bad person, but it was documented that there was a bad culture at Howe," said Sheila Romano, executive director of the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities. "I am concerned about people shifted to other facilities in large groups and bringing that culture with them."

Parents and guardians have been divided about the care at Howe. Though several have rallied against accusations of mistreatment, parents like Zita Verklan, whose son Michael died in March 2009 after choking on a hot dog, said they are disappointed in staff. Verklan has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against two doctors on-duty when her son died.

"This was no accident," Verklan said of her son's death. "This was negligence."

Marnel Scott, 58, a Howe employee for more than 20 years who helped oversee day-to-day operations, said problems there were too complex to fix quickly. Scott pinned some of the blame on a union that sometimes protected bad employees.

"If (Howe) were run like a private company, you could say, 'You're gone. Goodbye.' But that's not the way it worked," said Scott, who was among several top-level managers to work on a contract basis with the state after Howe's closing.

Critics long accused the union of protecting questionable employee conduct at Howe, just as unions had at other state facilities.

In 2007 at the downstate Chester Mental Health Center, a therapy aide punched a patient in the face and grabbed him by the neck, court records show. After the inspector general's office determined the aide had abused the patient and failed to report it, DHS fired him, only to lose the battle with the union for his reinstatement with no loss of seniority, records show.

Louis Volpi, a Howe employee for 24 years who is among 229 Howe workers transferred to the Ludeman Developmental Center in Park Forest, said employees kept their jobs because the union drove a hard bargain with the state. Workers agreed to defer raises this year if the state did not lay off other employees or seek to close any other facilities in 2011.

Management, bad recordkeeping and investigations, which Volpi said had nothing to do with the rank-and-file employees, "nailed our coffin shut."

jhood@tribune.com

klschorsch@tribune.com

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