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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Bleak Dahlia : Board-and-Care Home Had History of Citations

March 09, 1995|LISA O'NEILL and RENEE TAWA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the end, they left in haste.

Last week, the mentally ill residents of Dahlia Gar dens Guest Home packed up their belongings in big garbage bags as relatives and social workers hustled them off to new surroundings.

The El Monte board-and-care home had been given two days to shut its doors under a rare license suspension issued by the state. By the time Joe Chavez got there, his brother already had been moved.

Chavez was upset, partly because he didn't know where social workers had taken his 48-year-old brother, a diagnosed schizophrenic who had lived in the home for more than a year. Partly because no one had told him about the closure; he had read about it in that morning's newspaper. But mostly because he was suddenly learning that Dahlia Gardens was a troubled place that had racked up 78 violations of state regulations within the past year.

"I didn't know anything about that," said Chavez, a La Puente resident. "I would have been here a long time ago and gotten him out of here."

Chavez's dilemma underscores a common worry for the families of the mentally ill. Their unmanageable relatives often are referred by social workers to homes that might provide secure, healthy surroundings--or might not; the social workers are too busy to know the home's record intimately and few members of the public know how to find out themselves. Even families who do know how to look up a home's file with the state Department of Social Services may find some of the paperwork removed for confidentiality reasons. The public sees the bare-bones citations, which include a list of violations and dates.

In the case of Dahlia Gardens, the citations alone were formidable. Lack of adequate staff. Poorly trained personnel. Staff doing housework instead of supervising residents. Residents substituting for staff, with access to keys and client records. Failure to dispense medication. Dirty linens. Cockroaches.

But someone reading the home's extensive file--nearly 150 violations since it opened in 1987--would not find a clue that a woman, left unsupervised three years ago, got into the home's medicine cabinet and took a lethal overdose of drugs.

Nor would they see that a man had been slain there Feb. 8, allegedly by a fellow resident.

These and other earmarks of potential danger were revealed last week in the state's suspension order as among the reasons why the state did not wait to go through a formal hearing process before ordering the home closed.

Dahlia Gardens owner Karl Hoffman has declined comment since the state decided to seek revocation of his license. His attorney, Doug Otto, could not be reached for comment.

But in a previous interview with The Times, Hoffman said the home had only minor violations, all of which had been corrected. Hoffman said any problems he had with the state were the result of misunderstandings on his part.

"I didn't understand what was required," he said. "I run an excellent home for the people. They know I care for them."

According to the state suspension order, Hoffman "engaged in a pattern and practice of failing or refusing to employ sufficient qualified staff to ensure the provision of adequate care and supervision to clients . . . in spite of numerous warnings and directions."

The suspect in the beating death had been evicted from a previous home for violence, according to the state's temporary suspension order. The order said he also had killed another person, although it gave no details about that death, and that he had spent time in a psychiatric ward during the two months before the killing after complaining of hearing voices that told him to kill. Dahlia Gardens admitted him even though "they knew or should have known that (he) presented a danger to others," the order said.

But all the public file shows about the beating death is a citation issued Feb. 10 for lack of supervision involving "the incident on 2-8-95."

The public records do not include "incident reports," which homes must file in the event of an unusual occurrence, said Martha Lopez, a deputy director for the Department of Social Services. Incident reports are withheld from public files because they include confidential information, such as a client's name and mental capacity, she said. It would take too much staff time to peruse all reports and black out confidential information, she said.

If someone requested an incident report, however, or even asked to see all of a home's incident reports, "surely, we would honor that," Lopez said.

But an advocate for the mentally ill criticized the state procedures, saying it should routinely make all important information available to the public.

"That's ridiculous," said Tilda De Wolfe, president of the San Gabriel Valley Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "No matter how hard you try, you are not going to be coming up with all the information you need. We should probably push for some cleaning up for the regulations."

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