NAPA, Calif. (KTVU) - Cases involving starvation, neglect and sexual abuse targeting developmentally disabled clients in California are not being addressed thoroughly or going unchecked altogether, according to a former North Bay care employee who worked with patients.
Roberto Franco, an ex-employee of the North Bay Regional Center in Napa, said he is blowing the whistle on the multi billion dollar care industry that he believes is overwhelmed with cases and allowing serious incidents to fall through the cracks.
“It’s crazy because I’ve been trying to tell people about these things I’ve seen,” he told 2 Investigates.
By law, the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) is responsible for ensuring more than 330,000 people with developmental disabilities receive services and support. Every year, the department allocates billions of taxpayer dollars to 21 different regional centers statewide to carry out its responsibility. Those regional centers hire and pay service providers to directly house and care for clients whose disabilities include autism, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy.
As the number of clients increases each year so does the amount of public money budgeted to DDS. This year, the governor budgeted $7.8 billion to the state department, $435.2 million more than the previous year.
Despite the increase in funds for services, numerous misconduct cases are not being properly reported or investigated, according to Franco. If even seemingly small issues go unchecked, he said, they can turn into serious cases of abuse and neglect that fly under the radar of the proper authorities for years.
Cases of abuse and neglect
Franco was fired from the North Bay Regional Center (NBRC) in January 2018 for being “unprofessional and insubordinate,” according to his termination letter. But he believes regional center management penalized him for being persistently outspoken about client issues. As a service coordinator, it was his job to monitor client care and report problems.
All caretakers, providers and agencies are legally required to report incidents where a client is hurt or could be hurt. These reports are processed by regional centers and DDS.
Franco has since filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint with NBRC and DDS. In a letter, NBRC’s executive director, Gabriel Rogin, said the “complaint of wrongful termination does not fall within the scope of [the regional center’s] whistleblower policy...we feel strongly that we have proper basis for termination of employment.” DDS would not comment about Franco’s whistleblower complaint with the state but said it takes all complaints seriously.
Franco reached out to 2 Investigates after seeing this station's first story in February about staffing problems with a care provider. In a last minute reassignment, a caretaker was told to care for a client facing rape charges. The caretaker had no idea about the patient’s history and he ended up attacking her in his Benicia home. NBRC, Franco’s ex-employer, was responsible for that client and monitoring that care company. 2 Investigates asked Rogin if the agency took action against the care provider, but he declined to respond.
Franco said, as a service coordinator, he had an incident in Fairfield involving a client suddenly losing weight. His client’s mother said she reported her concerns to NBRC but no one took her seriously.
“I went to go visit the group home...I walked into the kitchen and one of the first things I saw was the fridge door tied up with shoelaces. There was no food for [the clients] to eat,” Franco said.
Turns out his client had been starving and no one from NBRC intervened until, Franco said, he spoke up.
According to the regional center, when the agency was notified of the incident, staff initiated a comprehensive Corrective Action Plan. More than year after Franco’s report, state regulators closed the group home and revoked the service provider’s license.
Franco said there was another incident in Fairfield where a caretaker failed to report gunfire and police activity at her adult foster home. SWAT officers responded to the house after the caretaker’s son, who wasn’t supposed to be at the house, got hold of his mother’s gun and opened fire. He refused to come out until officers deployed tear gas.
“I started questioning the caregiver asking what’s going on. Are you documenting this? She said I’m not documenting anything,” he said.
Franco’s client wasn’t at the house at the time, but he believes the caretaker should have reported the incident. All caretakers, service providers and agencies are, by law, mandatory reporters. The caretaker told 2 Investigates she was told by NBRC the incident was unreportable and the client was not home at the time so he was never in direct danger.
Even though the client was not in immediate danger, Franco believes it was a reportable incident. During the man’s arrest, police broke doors and left tear gas residue. Again, Franco believes NBRC would never have investigated the case if he did not press the issue himself.
“When I went into the home a week later I couldn’t be there for five minutes because my eyes were itching. I couldn’t even breathe!” Franco said.
After multiple requests, the North Bay Regional Center declined an interview with 2 Investigates. In an email, Rogin said, after NBRC learned about the SWAT standoff, staff moved the client to a different home. Rogin said staff is conducting a review to ensure policies and procedures were followed. He called the case “serious and tragic” and added “there is no greater priority for NBRC than the health and well-being of the people we serve. When we identify concerns with our vendors, we take action to address them.”
Franco believes the cases he shared are just the tip of the iceberg.
Lack of oversight concerns statewide
2 Investigates found lack of oversight concerns aren’t isolated to the North Bay; they stretch statewide. In January, the Department of Developmental Services requested $8.1 million to restructure and reorganize.
Budget documents, obtained by 2 Investigates, show the state department wants to create more positions to handle “caseload increases” and more complex client issues like “severe aggression, self-injurious and AWOL behavior and fire setting disorders.”
Despite evolving care complexities, growth in caseloads and more clients with severe disabilities transitioning out of state-run institutions and into community settings, according to the documents, “the current DDS organization structure has remained largely unchanged for several years.”
2 Investigates reached out to DDS several times for an interview about these concerns, but spokeswoman Ali Bay declined saying “we will let the detailed budget proposal speak for itself.”
Even though Franco was left without a job at NBRC, he said the real victims are the taxpayers and the clients -- many of whom can’t speak up for themselves and rely on a system that he believes is failing them.
“That makes me feel angry because you try to make changes, but there are so many people who’ve been there so many years and they’re not open to new suggestions or changes,” he said.
Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter for KTVU Fox 2. If you have a comment or tip regarding this story or another, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.