'Caretakers' who prey on the retarded 13 in Howard agency victimized in 4 years

Arc defends program

March 02, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Ann Allen thought her brother Vernon was in safe hands in a home operated by The Arc of Howard County, a group for the mentally disabled.

But Vernon Merryman, 70, who uses a wheelchair, would become one of 13 retarded people in Arc's care to fall victim to crime in the past four years -- at the hands of those hired to care for them or the employees' relatives or friends.

About one of every seven clients in Arc's 93-person residential care program has been a victim of theft since 1994, spurring concerns about how well the agency monitors clients' welfare.

The county's largest nonprofit program for the mentally disabled has employed workers who were charged with crimes, and three were convicted of beating or stealing from the clients they were hired to protect.

Arc officials did not know about the charges against some employees until shown evidence by The Sun, raising questions about how the agency hires workers, who are paid on average $7.20 an hour.

Arc officials acknowledge the problems but say they have put safeguards in place to prevent thefts from clients. They say they generally don't hire people who have been charged criminally -- even if the charges don't result in convictions -- and say they are trying to expand background checks on applicants.

We want "to make sure we have the best people we can," said Carol Beatty, Arc's executive director.

State officials, who provide most of Arc's $7 million annual budget, say the number of thefts from Arc's clients is "unusual." But they say Arc is taking steps to prevent any recurrence.

Vernon Merryman's caretaker, Katherine Marie Matthews, was an admitted drug addict who had faced criminal charges in the 1980s, including an indictment for forgery and theft that was dismissed after she was granted immunity to testify in a criminal trial.

Her record unnoticed, she got a job at the Arc in 1997. Two months later, she left Merryman and two other charges in their Columbia group home, stole $725 in cash and checks, clothes and a company car, and headed to Baltimore to buy crack cocaine. Last fall, she was convicted of reckless endangerment and theft.

'They hired her?'

"They hired her?" exclaimed Allen, Vernon's sister, when told of Matthews' past. "I just can't believe they don't investigate more before they hire these people."

In other cases:

Lisa Burge recently pleaded guilty to felony theft for stealing nearly $20,000 from four retarded clients last year.

Prosecutors said Burge regularly drove three women from the home she supervised in Columbia to the bank to help them deposit checks. Instead, Burge cashed the checks, using the money to make payments on her house and car.

Burge also cashed more than $5,000 in clients' personal checks she filled out and her retarded clients signed, prosecutors said. A former Arc employee says her warnings about Burge's actions in an earlier job were ignored.

Former house counselor Kelly Edward Branch was charged with forging a check and removing money from a retarded client's bank account. Branch, 27, was convicted of misdemeanor theft in February 1997, given a suspended sentence and probation, and ordered to pay $100 in restitution to William Brannon.

Four years before Branch was hired by the Arc in 1993, he was charged with breaking and entering in Prince George's County. The charge was dismissed.

Michael Anthony McClain, whose mother was a house counselor for an Arc home in Columbia, told police he stole checks from three retarded clients and pocketed $5,200 with a co-conspirator.

McClain, 21, whose record includes arrests for battery and theft and an indictment for robbery, often visited the home, said his mother.

Charged with 20 counts of theft from Arc clients, McClain pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor theft in July 1997. He was sentenced to time served in jail -- 217 days -- ordered to pay restitution and placed on probation.

Frederick Duane Jones, 42, described in court records as a recently paroled, former boyfriend of a house counselor, was accused of stealing cash and other items from two Arc homes in Columbia in 1995. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft in one case; the other was dropped.

In an earlier incident, former house counselor Bruce Hebron, 47, was convicted of adult abuse and neglect in September 1990 for hitting an Arc client. He was given a suspended sentence and put on probation.

Arc officials could not say when they hired Hebron. In 1989, he was charged with battery in Baltimore County. His case was placed on the inactive docket.

Arc's funding sources

Arc, which is regulated by the state, receives federal, state and county money, and some private contributions, officials said.

The 240-employee agency runs a residential program providing varying levels of care in 40 homes in Howard County, as well as a day program focusing on vocational training and community job programs.

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