State, Arc to probe Howard program Mentally disabled were victimized by hired caretakers

March 03, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

State regulators said yesterday they will investigate a Howard County program for the mentally disabled where 13 clients have been victimized by crime -- most committed by the people hired to care for them.

One state official termed the problems at The Arc of Howard County a "wake-up call" and said letters will be sent to every state-funded program serving the mentally handicapped, reminding them of the importance of safeguarding clients' welfare.

The Arc of Howard County -- a mostly state-funded nonprofit agency that serves 93 clients in a residential care program -- also faces scrutiny from state Arc officials.

Christine Marchand, executive director of The Arc of Maryland, said yesterday that key Arc leaders planned to discuss last night "what happened and what needs to happen."

State officials and Arc leaders were responding to an article yesterday in The Sun that revealed that since 1994, one of seven clients in Arc's residential program had been the victim of a crime by employees or the employees' relatives or friends.

Carol Benner, director of the Licensing and Certification Administration, the state agency that regulates Arc programs around Maryland, said she planned to do an on-site investigation in Howard County to determine whether the agency is doing proper background and reference checks on employees and has procedures in place to protect clients.

"We're concerned that the basic rights of these individuals may have been violated," Benner said. "We don't tolerate stealing from anyone. It's not nice when it happens to anyone but when it happens to people who are vulnerable, it seems worse."

Said Diane Coughlin, director of the state Developmental Disabilities Administration, which provides most of Howard Arc's $7 million budget: "It's a wake-up call for [our] whole system."

The Sun article also reported that the agency has employed workers with criminal charges -- three of whom were later convicted of beating or stealing from clients.

Taking advantage of an apparently loose accounting system, a former supervisor stole nearly $20,000 from four retarded clients -- one of whom was a 71-year-old blind diabetic who suffers from cerebral palsy -- in a six-month period.

Howard Arc officials, who say they have tightened their procedures in the wake of the thefts, said they welcomed an investigation by Benner's office.

"We feel the system in place is a good one, but we would welcome any assistance that they can provide," said Carol Beatty, executive director of Howard's Arc. "I think they are going to find a vast improvement over what was in place in the early '90s."

Coughlin said that in the past the agency lacked adequate safeguards to protect client funds, protections that could have thwarted such thefts as the nearly $20,000 stolen by former supervisor Lisa Burge in 1996.

"At the time these thefts occurred, they did not have the policies and procedures to prevent this magnitude of thefts," Coughlin said. "I was very disturbed by [Burge's thefts] and very concerned."

Beatty also said the agency is continuing to explore options for performing more thorough background checks. A firm hired by the agency searches seven years of criminal records -- a system that missed the criminal history of Katherine Marie Matthews, who two months after being hired by the Arc in 1997 abandoned her three charges and stole money to go on a crack binge in Baltimore.

The Arc is a national advocacy group and source of services for the mentally disabled. Founded by families, Maryland's Arc has 12 local chapters in different counties. Each Arc is governed by its own board of directors. The state group does mostly advocacy work.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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