BENICIA, Calif. (KTVU) - It was a last-minute job reassignment that Martha said changed her life forever and put a Bay Area community at risk.
She said she was viciously attacked by a patient, who was already awaiting a separate rape trial, in a case that is now raising larger questions about oversight and protection for caregivers. Often, stories about the home health industry focus on patient safety. But Martha's ordeal challenges this stereotype, shining a light on the potential risks that caretakers face as they enter strangers’ homes on a daily basis.
The Contra Costa County caretaker would only share her story with 2 Investigates if her real identity was concealed.
Early morning, July 31, 2017, Martha said her employer, Omelagah Inc., texted that her caretaking assignment had changed to a client living at the Waterview Apartment Homes in Benicia. There was an apparent staffing issue.
The man living in the apartment was Robert Allen Dickens, 28, who has special needs and was under the supervision of the North Bay Regional Center (NBRC).
She had no idea that just one month before, against the recommendation of a prosecutor, a judge had released Dickens from custody while he awaited trial for an April 2017 rape of an unconscious person. He pleaded not guilty.
NBRC is a state-funded nonprofit corporation that receives tens of millions of tax dollars every year to pay providers, like Omelagah, to care for the developmentally disabled. In 2017 it received $212 million in state and federal grants alone.
“The next thing I know I was on the floor. He was over me,” Martha said, stressing that no one from her agency had told her about Dicken's criminal charges. “He had pulled down my pants, almost knee-length.”
Martha told 2 Investigates Dickens had tried to coax her into his dark room but attacked her in the hallway. She blacked out and when she came to, she said, Dickens was still hitting her.
“While I was trying to get up he was hitting me in the head so many times I thought I was going to die,” she said.
Martha fought off Dickens. Dickens was arrested and charged with battery and attempted sexual assault. Martha said if she had know he had a violent history, she would have never taken the assignment.
Neighbors also said they did not feel safe with Dickens living in their community.
“I didn’t trust him around children or anyone,” said one neighbor who was too afraid to give her name. “He would talk about how he had beat people up when he was in a mental hospital. He’d talk about sexual assault from his parents when he was a child.”
Dickens pleaded not guilty in the Benicia attempted rape case involving Martha. Both his criminal cases are ongoing with trials set for May.
Martha is now suing Omelagah, Inc. in civil court for failing to prevent sexual harassment and negligence.
“It’s unfair that someone who didn’t have the skills to take care of a predator was put in a position to be harmed by him,” said her attorney Jessica Pride.
2 Investigates found claims of failure point to not just Martha’s employer, Omelagah, but to state regulators and the state-funded nonprofit NBRC that was tasked with supervising Dickens.
The executive director of the North Bay Regional Center told 2 Investigates he was advised not to make any comment on the record. Omelagah told 2 Investigates the agency had no comment but looked forward to being vindicated in court. Dickens' attorney had no comment.
2 Investigates reached out to both the California Department of Social Services and the Department of Developmental Services because they oversee the state’s human services industry. Neither departments commented on the Omelagah case.
After months of e-mails and calls, CDDS eventually sent 2 Investigates a statement saying Supported Living Services, which Dickens received, is not licensed by the state so the records are not public. CDDS spokeswoman Nancy Lungren explained the vendors and regional centers are responsible for monitoring services, not the state.
While CDDS continued to explain it was not liable, 2 Investigates learned the entire department requested $8.1 million on Jan. 10 to “restructure the organization” acknowledging monitoring insufficiencies with regional centers and vendors. In the budget-change proposal, the department also acknowledged evolving complexities, growing caseloads, closures of facilities and a state organization structure that has not changed in several years.
2 Investigates reached out to two independent industry experts who, agree, the home health landscape is quickly changing and could be putting more people at risk. State labor statistics show caretakers are predominantly women, many of them immigrants or new to this country.
"They're sometimes more likely to take on a situation where they feel uncomfortable because they do need to support their families," said Solano and Contra Costa Ombudsman Services executive director Nicole Howell.
Dodi Zotigh is a program coordinator with Mt. Diablo Adult Education. She said the need for caregivers in the Bay Area has grown exponentially.
"It's about 80 percent in Contra Costa. Depending on which county [you're looking at] it can be over 100% when you look at the last five years and the next five years," Zotigh said.
The listed factors created problems that are apparent in performance reports of the North Bay Regional. 2 Investigates found, between 2013 and 2017, NBRC partially met or failed to meet state standards for auditing its vendors, like Omelagah.
While arguments about who was responsible for Dickens continue in court, neighbors in Benicia believe he fell through the cracks ignored by regulators putting them all at risk.
"It could've been me. It could've been another woman," said that neighbor.
Martha worries about that too: “I'm sure the next person he wants might end up dead."
Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter for KTVU Fox 2. E-mail her story ideas and comments at email@example.com.