State officials Friday sought to permanently bar the Rev. Kenneth Lowe from operating homes for the elderly and said he should be fined $42,500 for the deaths of 17 patients in those homes since 1980.
At least five of those deaths may have been caused or hastened by a lack of adequate medical care at four homes Lowe operated, according to court papers filed in Orange County Superior Court Friday by the state Department of Social Services.
But officials sought fines for the other 12 deaths as well, because they occurred in unlicensed homes.
The documents were filed in support of a request for a permanent injunction to prevent Lowe from operating any homes. Lowe was jailed briefly earlier this year for violating a 2-year-old court order that he shut down his four unlicensed homes. Three were shut down, but he continues to operate an unlicensed home in El Toro, officials said.
Raid on Home
In preparation for the injunction request, investigators raided the El Toro home and seized medical records.
In 39 cases cited in the records, plus five cases in which patients died, Lowe failed to provide enough care for patients, according to a sworn statement filed by Christine Guest, a nurse and licensing specialist with the Social Services Department.
The five deaths came after Lowe was ordered to cease operations, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Richard A. Spector, who filed the documents Friday.
Lowe, who could not be reached for comment, has claimed his facilities did not and do not require state licenses. He also has claimed in the past that regulation of the homes is a violation of religious freedom under state and federal constitutions. Lowe has identified himself as a former minister in the Universal Life Church.
Superior Judge Judith M. Ryan last December found Lowe in contempt of a court order of July 11, 1984, prohibiting him from operating homes. Lowe eventually served 16 days out of a 230-day jail sentence, but he reportedly refused to eat while in custody.
Last month, Ryan ordered Lowe to perform community service work instead of serving the remainder of the jail term.
"It's outrageous," said Spector, who vigorously opposed releasing Lowe. "He has thumbed his nose at the court."
When investigators arrived at the El Toro facility, 24602 Jutewood Place, Lowe answered the door, according to court papers.
Guest said that she observed "many serious health and safety violations," such as disconnected smoke alarms, some blocked fire exits and piles of debris "that could well support a fire."
Ten elderly persons were in the home, Guest said.
"I am professionally overwhelmed by both the medical fragility of most of these patients and the fact that they were treated in unlicensed residential facilities," Guest said.
After her review of the files, covering patients as far back as 1980 housed in the four facilities Lowe then operated, Guest said: "It is my opinion that the needs of many of these residents were neglected, and that in some cases, that neglect hastened their deaths."
Comments by Guest on three of the five cases in Lowe's files in which death may have been due in part to inadequate care follow:
- Dorothy Smith, 79, died September, 1980. She was not eating, required special feeding, experienced choking and needed skilled nursing care.
"She did not receive that care at the Lowe facilities, and in my opinion, that lack of care may have resulted in her death," Guest said.
- Archibald Gardner, age 85 when he died in May of 1981 at Lowe's facility in Mission Viejo on Mallorca Lane. Gardner, who used a pacemaker, was more than once found with a weak pulse, irregular heartbeat, in an unresponsive condition with shallow breathing.
"Gardner was in need of skilled nursing care and the absence of such care may have lead to his death," Guest said.
- Bruce Mitchell, 80, when he died in the El Toro home in October, 1983. He was a diabetic, repeatedly ran high temperatures and had a shunt placed in his brain to drain excess spinal fluid. The condition he suffered from was hydrocephalus, an abnormal increase in fluid in the brain.
"In my opinion, the shunt may not have been draining properly, and skilled nursing care would have prevented this," Guest said.