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Congressional Panel Hears Plea to Make Care Homes Safe Place

Times Staff Writer

Boardinghouses are “the only answer” for many of the old and indigent and “should be a good place to live, not some deathtrap,” John Sharp, a tenant in a Sacramento home where seven buried bodies were found last year, said Thursday.

At an emotion-filled congressional hearing on abuses and neglect at board-and-care homes, Sharp, a 64-year-old disabled cook, told lawmakers: “I often wondered why I was spared a terrible fate. I didn’t turn over my Social Security check . . . and that’s probably what saved my life.”

Dorothea Montalvo Puente, the owner of the Sacramento boarding home where Sharp lived, has been charged with one count of murder. She had persuaded many of her tenants to make her a “representative payee,” allowing her to cash their Social Security checks.

“I am one of the few survivors of her form of care,” Sharp said.

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Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), chairman of the Special Aging Committee, said the government must act to improve conditions in board-and-care homes.

Known by various names--board-and-care homes, group homes, foster homes, rest homes, adult homes--they are lodgings for hundreds of thousands of the elderly, disabled or mentally ill. They may be licensed by the state but more often are simply large houses in which the owner rents rooms.

“Far too many homes are providing grossly substandard care that endangers the health and well-being of their residents, who are among the most vulnerable and isolated of our citizens,” Pryor said.

He also played a tape recording in which the owner of an Alabama home explained why she killed a resident: “We were fighting; she pulled off my wig. I . . . throwed Clorox in her face, and I shot her.”

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Many substandard nursing homes, which no longer can meet increasingly strict federal guidelines, have become board-and-care facilities, said Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), chairman of the long-term care subcommittee of the House Aging Committee.

His staff has interviewed 2,500 residents of 46 board-and-care homes, finding tenants “warehoused in understaffed, unregulated, shoddy and unsafe facilities,” Pepper said at Thursday’s hearing, an unusual joint meeting of Pryor’s Senate committee and Pepper’s house subcommittee.

Pepper also noted that most boarders are poor and depend for their income on government programs, including Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, a separate federal welfare program for the elderly poor and the disabled poor of all ages.

‘We found that board-and-care residents, largely elderly female and dependent, typically turn over the entirety of their SSI check . . . to home owners,” he said.

The average check is about $500 a month.

“More than half the residents came from a mental institution--the rest from hospitals, nursing homes and the streets,” he added. “We found that most homes were not equipped with fire safety equipment, were unsanitary and ill-kept, roach- and pest-infested.”

Sharp said that Puente’s home was always clean.

“Living conditions were very nice--as long as you lived,” he said in a later interview, making a wry reference to his fellow tenants who had disappeared.

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Puente, Sharp said, asked him to allow her to cash his Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks.

“She said she did it for the others and found it worked out well for everyone--saved them from unnecessary hassle. I told her that those checks were my lifeline, and I couldn’t trust them to anyone but myself,” Sharp said.

Puente reportedly had authority to sign for government checks for as many as 11 people, but neither federal nor state authorities make regular efforts to determine the well-being of government check recipients, who have given others authority to sign and cash them.

As for Sharp, he said at the hearing that he now lives “in a better home. . . .”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I think how lucky I am to have gotten out of the Puente house alive. But I worry too that in the future, I might get sicker and need a facility that provides more medical care--and I’m sure I won’t be able to afford it.”


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