Friday, December 22, 2006

State's largest center for adults with mental retardation abuses its residents

A brother's advocate
Siblings reunited, but Oakwood abuse claims raise alarm
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, July 2, 2006, pg. A1.

For years, Daniel Dermitt was haunted by a dream about being separated from his mentally disabled brother when they were small — and his desire to find him.

Dermitt, 24, found his brother, Tim Cox, 28, in 2004 after being separated more than 20 years, and thought it would bring him peace.

Instead, Dermitt has found himself thrust into the turmoil over conditions at Cox's home at Communities at Oakwood — the state's largest center for adults with mental retardation.

In recent months, Dermitt has followed with increasing concern the steady stream of reports of abuse and neglect of residents at the Somerset center — several of those reports involving Cox.

Cox has been attacked and injured by another resident, and four workers were arrested on June 19 and charged with abuse after Cox suffered a broken nose on a fishing trip, according to Dermitt and records of the incidents.

"It seems like everything I'm hearing just gets worse," said Dermitt, who has become Cox's legal guardian and fiercest advocate since he traced him to Oakwood two years ago. "I'm doing everything I know to do but I can't make them take care of them and I'm not sure that they are."

Dermitt said he is grateful to have located his brother, one of four children removed from their birth parents in 1981. Dermitt and two siblings were adopted by a Leitchfield couple while the state sent Cox to foster care.

"I've always known that I would find him," Dermitt said.

But continued problems at Oakwood have alarmed Dermitt and his family, who initially believed Cox was getting good care when they visited the picturesque, tree-lined Somerset campus, where 260 residents live in cottages spread among grassy hills.

"It was beautiful," said Tina Milliner, 29, Dermitt's sister, also from Leitchfield and the oldest of the four children. "We were impressed."

But now, she agrees with Dermitt that Oakwood is unsafe.

"I certainly want to get him out of there," she said.

Struggle for improvement
Officials with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services say they are struggling to correct problems at Oakwood, which has been cited 18 times in the past 18 months by its Inspector General for endangering residents.

Fifteen employees have been arrested in the past two years on charges of abuse or neglect involving residents. - WHY NOT CLOSE OAKWOOD??

Officials said they can't comment on any individual case, such as Cox's, because of confidentiality.

But Steve Shannon, a deputy commissioner with the cabinet, said officials are trying to improve conditions for all residents.

"The goal is to make sure people are safe here," he said.

Dermitt is working to find a placement for Cox that is closer to Leitchfield and in a smaller setting, such as a group home.

But finding appropriate placement has been difficult because Cox needs careful supervision. He has mental retardation, autism and only speaks a few words or phrases.

He also needs more therapy and services to get him ready to live outside an institution, Dermitt said.

Dermitt, who works in physician recruiting for the Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center in Grayson County, said he doesn't know the exact reason why he and his siblings were removed from their birth parents and has never wished to pursue it.

"We've got a great family," he said of his adoptive parents.

Because of Cox's disabilities, state child welfare officials decided he should be placed in a separate foster home where he could receive more services while Dermitt and his two siblings were adopted in 1983 by Chris and Roger Dermitt of Leitchfield.

Chris Dermitt said she isn't sure if the family could have cared for Cox because of his disabilities. But she said state child welfare workers said it wasn't an option when she and her husband adopted the other children, Daniel, 18 months, Bradley, 3 and Tina, 6.

Chris Dermitt said the family lost track of Cox as the state moved him through various foster placements. But she said she was thrilled when Daniel Dermitt was able to find him.

"I'm really proud of him for what he's done," she said.

Search for sibling
Daniel Dermitt said he always had wanted to find Cox and had many unsuccessful attempts as he grew older. He said he made it a priority after graduating from Georgetown College in 2003.

He decided to find a job in Louisville — instead of returning home to Leitchfield as his family wanted — believing his brother might still be in the Louisville area.

Dermitt took a job with Louisville Diversified Services, an agency that helps mentally disabled people with jobs and services, because he wanted to establish connections that might help him find Cox.

Rosanna Evans, a compliance coordinator with the agency, worked with Dermitt and said she was impressed with his determination.

"I knew he was going to eventually find his brother," said Evans, who said she and others at Louisville Diversified suggested organizations and individuals who might help.

Dermitt said initial inquiries to various foster care and mental- retardation groups yielded no answers — or replies that confidentiality rules prohibited releasing information about clients.

But he gradually began finding people at various agencies who had heard of Cox or had known him. Dermitt continued to make phone calls, explaining he was Cox's brother and was searching for him, and one day learned Cox had been living at a group home in London, Ky.

When he called the home, Dermitt was referred to Cox's state-appointed guardian who was able to direct Dermitt to Cox — by then living at Oakwood. Dermitt offered to take over guardianship and did so within several months of locating Cox.

Tearful reunion
Dermitt, his sister and his other brother, Bradley Dermitt, all made the first trip to visit Cox at Oakwood, an emotional event for everyone, Daniel Dermitt said.

"He came up and hugged us," he recalled. "Everyone was crying."

And Cox , Daniel Dermitt said, was able, slowly, to utter one of the few sentences he has learned to speak: "I love you."

Staff at the Council on Mental Retardation in Louisville, who had provided services for Cox when he was young, said they are pleased Cox's family has found him.

"I am so glad Dan has reconnected with him," April DuVal, executive director said. "Dan is going to be a godsend for him for the rest of his life, with the oversight and advocacy that's going to be needed."

Dermitt's sister agrees.

"It's been a blessing that we found him after so many years," Milliner said. "It's our time to rally for him."

Daniel Dermitt said he remains concerned for residents at Oakwood as reports of abuse and neglect continue to emerge.

"It really makes me nervous for everyone else that's there," he said.


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