State officials physically removed nine elderly patients early Tuesday after forcibly entering an El Toro home run by a minister who for 32 months has ignored court orders to shut down.
All of the home's nine patients required more medical care than the Rev. Kenneth Lowe was capable of providing at the unlicensed facility, although none were critically ill, state officials said.
Lowe, who could not be reached for comment, attempted to bar the door of the home in the 14600 block of Jutewood Place, but was "immediately restrained without major incident," said Joan L. Loftin, supervising investigator for the state Department of Social Services.
Despite allegations that the quality of care at Lowe's homes has for years been a threat to the lives of patients, several relatives and elderly residents protested the closure, Loftin said.
During the 7 a.m. raid, conducted by Orange County sheriff's deputies and state and county health officials, evidence also was gathered that Lowe was accepting patients who required higher levels of care than he can provide, Loftin said.
Earlier this month, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary L. Taylor signed an injunction permanently barring Lowe from running unlicensed homes, and authorizing officials to "physically relocate any elderly persons" found to be housed in violation of the order.
Lowe has been under court order since July, 1984, to shut down unlicensed facilities and has served time in jail for failing to comply.
Operation of an unlicensed home for the elderly has been classified as a misdemeanor crime punishable by either a $1,000 fine or 180 days in jail or both since January, 1986.
Asked if any criminal charges had been filed against Lowe, Loftin said Tuesday, "Not yet."
Lowe's wife, Norma, was hospitalized after the raid when she complained of pain, Loftin said. Neither Lowe nor his wife could be reached for comment.
Last July, state social services officials alleged in court that at least five of 17 patient deaths that had occurred in homes run by Lowe since 1980 were caused or hastened by a lack of adequate medical care.
Lowe's homes were first raided in 1983, when state investigators claimed that substandard medical care was threatening patients. Lowe, who was then associated with the Universal Life Church, contended he needed no license to operate his homes, and claimed that state regulation was a violation of church-state separation. Lowe said he is now affiliated with the Nisus church and Bible Assembly.
Lowe was ordered by the court to shut down all unlicensed operations on July 11, 1984. When he ignored the order, he was found in contempt of court in December, 1986, and sentenced to 230 days in jail.
Lowe began a hunger strike in jail, and his contempt sentence was reduced to probation after he served 16 days. He has continued to violate the original court order since then, according to state officials.
Charges that the Jutewood home is in violation of fire regulations are now pending against Lowe.
All nine residents were transferred by 6 p.m. Family members were contacted for each resident, and several spent the night with their next of kin.
"There were a number of people (family members) who were upset," Loftin acknowledged. "Some of them felt there was a lack of adequate alternatives. Anytime you do this abruptly, people are upset."
One unidentified resident insisted that he did not want to move, but eventually left in the company of family members.
Fight Against Closure
Lowe's stubborn willingness to fight against closure--even to the point of going to jail--has frustrated and embarrassed lawyers and social services officials who have tried to shut him down.
He was released from jail last year on condition that he perform 780 hours of community service. But almost a year after his release, virtually none has been performed. Lowe repeatedly missed court dates set by Superior Court Judge Judith M. Ryan, claiming through his wife that he was too ill to attend. At one point, Norma Lowe brought Ryan a letter from a doctor who stated that Lowe's return to court would pose a serious threat to his life. Another hearing is set for next week.
"Lowe has been pretty effective about using the system to his own advantage," Loftin said.
She said the latest tactic Tuesday--forcibly removing residents, rather than seeking more orders against Lowe personally--is part of a new emphasis by the state on shutting down unlicensed operations.
Asked what would keep Lowe from returning Wednesday and renewing operations, Loftin responded, "It is his private home. We just have to hope that he doesn't come back tomorrow, and that these people don't come back tomorrow."
"If he does," Loftin said, "we'll be back tomorrow, too."