Selling out Seniors

By Berens, Michael | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Selling out Seniors


Berens, Michael, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Lax regulation, oversight create dangerous mix in adult-care homes

Unemployed? Struggling to make the mortgage? Want to rake in lots of money without leaving home? Then the state of Washington has a deal for you - and so do dozens of states - if you'll agree to provide room and board for vulnerable seniors.

Don't worry if you dropped out of high school. Don't fret if your only experience with elder care was a temporary job as an unlicensed aide. You qualify.

In Washington and nationally, thousands of ordinary homeowners have received state licenses to provide care for up to six older adults. There are nearly 3,000 licensed homes in Washington. On paper, it sounds like a great deal for seniors: Live in a familiar neighborhood inside a cozy home and enjoy greater freedom and enhanced dignity.

But this rapidly growing, scanty regulated industry has attracted scores of profiteers, including adult-home owners who've marketed elderly residents as investments. One owner advertised three elderly residents for sale for $1 00,000 - cash only. Another ad teased: Start making money now!

The Times' yearlong series, Seniors for Sale, revealed that thousands of vulnerable adults have been exploited by profiteers and amateur caregivers inside adult homes - sometimes with deadly results. The series is available online at http://ow.ly/4wFIO.

In addition to uninvestigated deaths, the Times uncovered scores of cases in which elderly victims were imprisoned in their rooms, roped into their beds at night, strapped to chairs during the day so they wouldn't wander off, drugged Into submission or denied medical treatment for weeks.

There are many lessons learned from this project that may aid other journalists who endeavor to peel open a secretive state agency, pursue the financially motivated migration of the elderly into the community, or seek little-known public records and investigative files.

All your manuals, please

Government agencies love manuals. So should you. File a public record request for manuals of every computer database in the agency. There is nothing privileged in a manual - even if some of the actual data is confidential.

Database manuals are a key to successful public record negotiations. Don't guess what the agency keeps or how and where it's kept. Let the manuals be your map. The manuals, also known as file layouts, are essential to deciphering codes or abbreviations used to designate information in the data.

Also, file a public record recluest for a" °PeratinS manuals anQl handbooks - the bureaucratic rules of the job. For instance, every new state investigator is handed a staff handbook on protocols at the Washington's Department of Social and Health Services, which regulates adult homes. Handbooks contain a list of every document type (listing its name or number) that is generated and received by the office.

This strategy was central to the success of Seniors for Sale. I learned that adult home information was scattered and divided among more than a dozen paper records and databases. Without the manuals, I might have missed huge swaths of valuable records.

For instance, gathering a complete set of data enabled me to uncover that for every four new homes licensed, three existing homes closed down, often from bankruptcy or following allegations of abuse or neglect. The churn rate sometimes led to disastrous consequences.

First draft, please

Reporters are not the only professionals to endure deep and merciless editing. State investigators are routinely edited by their supervisors. Comparison of first draft to finished report often yields great story moments.

Adult-home owners are frequently charged with administrative violations. However, most charges result in a negotiated settlement, a plea bargain of sorts. As part of the settlement, the state often agrees to edit out embarrassing details from the original charge. …

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