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Complaint Alleges Mortuary Negligence : Funeral homes: A group campaigns for stricter adherence to industry regulations. A state action targets two establishments in South-Central.

June 13, 1993|ELSTON CARR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Once a month, the members of the AH Foundation meet in each other's living rooms to share stories of how their deceased loved ones were mistreated by mortuary workers.

Their emotional stories tell of bodies being lost or switched, of beloved relatives being dressed in soiled clothing, of bodies being so improperly cared for that the stench attracts insects.

Perhaps what is more harrowing than those tales is that they are not isolated incidents, foundation members say. As a result, the 4-month-old organization, which has already seen its membership grow to 100 families from throughout Southern California, has started a grass-roots campaign for stricter enforcement of laws regulating funeral homes. The results of that campaign are already yielding tangible results.

On May 18, the state attorney general's office filed a complaint with the State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers against Willie Frank Houston, who owns and operates the Houston and Peoples Funeral Home and Houston's Mortuary, both in South-Central, and Houston and Peoples Funeral Home in Pomona. And on June 2, James Allen, executive officer of the state board, resigned under heavy criticism from advocacy groups and lawmakers that the board has been lax in overseeing mortuaries.

Robert A. Heron, the deputy attorney general who filed the complaints against Houston, said a state administrative hearing is expected to be convened in August that could result in the revocation of Houston's funeral director's license.

The 35-page complaint, filed in conjunction with 16 families, chronicles alleged instances of "gross negligence, gross incompetence and unprofessional conduct" in which Houston employed unlicensed embalmers, lost bodies, used obscene language in front of clients, picked up bodies at hospitals without permission of relatives, and made false and misleading statements to obtain business.

The formation in February of the AH Foundation, which is now seeking nonprofit status, was prompted by the alleged abuses detailed in the attorney general's case. For Audrey Hughley, the organization's founder, forming the support and consumer advocacy group was a move to gain justice for bereaved people who have been traumatized during one of life's most vulnerable moments.

Hughley, who lives in an unincorporated area near South Los Angeles, and eight other volunteers operate the agency from their homes. A crisis-response team makes daily conference calls to counsel families who have filed complaints against mortuaries.

Hughley's activism started Jan. 2 after a visit to the Houston and Peoples Funeral Home on Central Avenue, where she and other relatives were horrified to discover that the body of her aunt, Nevel L. Milligan, had been switched with another corpse.

A coroner's investigation concluded that Milligan's body was switched with that of Mary L. Nutter and was buried Dec. 29, 1992. Houston denied any wrongdoing, but Milligan was disinterred from Nutter's grave Jan. 29. Funeral home employees refused to discuss the incident and other charges, and Houston did not return several calls.

"This has been a nightmare," said Hughley, who said she received dozens of calls and letters from people with similar experiences at Houston's and other mortuaries. "There's nothing I can do to describe the pain at a time when you're so vulnerable."

Hughley, who launched a letter-writing campaign to Los Angeles City Council members and Gov. Pete Wilson and forwarded complaints from other alleged victims to the state attorney general's office, said the case against the Houston funeral homes is just a small indication of bigger problems in the industry.

An investigation of the state board released May 26 by the state Department of Consumer Affairs found that in 1991 and 1992, 65 of 68 complaints to the board had not been investigated or settled in a timely manner.

"There is no disagreement that there are problems within the board," said Louis Bonsignore, of the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the funeral board. "The board has been lax in its enforcement, and we have consistently called on them to clean up their act and do more to protect the consumer."

The investigation also found that one of the 33 unresolved complaints--out of 150 total complaints in 1989 and 1990--involved a funeral home operated by a relative of Allen's, the board's executive officer.

In that case, a family attending a closed-casket ceremony at the Allen Brothers Mortuary in Vista later found that the casket was empty, according to investigators. It was later determined that the body had been buried earlier without the family's permission.

Allen, who resigned after coming under fire from the AH Foundation, the Family's Urging Sacred Treatment, a Northern California advocacy group, and state legislators, could not be reached for comment.

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