DeKalb cracks down on unlicensed care homes

Indepth coverage

Since May, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has gone behind the headlines to report on systemic weaknesses that imperil vulnerable adults who rely on personal care homes. Reporters found a growing number of unlicensed homes were operating outside the law. At the same time there were too few state-paid staffers available to inspect licensed facilities. As part of this ongoing investigation, The AJC has analyzed thousands of inspection reports and interviewed state and local officials, social service providers, advocates for vulnerable adults, residents and their families. For more about this series, choose from the related links on this page.

DeKalb County police on Thursday shut down four group homes for the elderly or disabled and arrested two caregivers in the first major effort to shut down unlicensed personal care homes since a new state law took effect in July.

Police say the houses they shuttered represent a few of what could be dozens of unlicensed personal care homes operating in DeKalb — and potentially hundreds throughout the state.

Unlicensed personal care homes are a growing concern for local and state officials because they house a vulnerable group of people who are ripe for financial exploitation, since many residents receive monthly government disability or Social Security checks.

“Every day, I get a report of one I’ve never heard of before,” said DeKalb Police Lt. Tom Whittington.

An investigation conducted last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the worst abuses of elderly and disabled adults often happens in unlicensed facilities that state officials can’t find, don’t inspect and have few resources to shut down.

Unlike nursing homes, personal care homes do not handle medical care. They provide services such as lodging, food, bathing, toileting and grooming, and can help residents manage their medications.

A state law that took effect in July makes it a misdemeanor to operate a personal care home without a license from the state Department of Community Health. A repeat offense is a felony.

Some residents of the homes police targeted this week were bedridden, while others had psychological problems. Six residents were either hospitalized or relocated because they not being supervised by trained professionals in a regulated environment, police said.

There were signs of patient neglect at one of the locations where three people with mental illness lived — a ranch-style brick home in the 1900 block of Columbia Drive near Decatur. Owner Terentia McIntosh was arrested for allegedly operating three unlicensed facilities. Investigators said they found locks on the refrigerator and freezer and empty packets of medication laying about.

McIntosh also operated an unlicensed personal care home in the house next-door, but she closed it after a fire broke out inside it last summer, police said.

A neighbor, Lonnie Dowell, said he had been complaining for years about residents roaming the streets without supervision. Dowell said he saw a male resident burying his medication pills in an adjacent church yard, and another urinating in the front yard.

“This has been going on five years or more,” Dowdell said. “Police are always over here.”

Police also arrested Evette Britton, the manager of a facility in the 5900 block of Meadows Drive near Lithonia, on Wednesday on a charge of operating an unlicensed personal care home. The owner of the business, Dorrett Goulbourne, is wanted on the same charge.

Three bedridden patients there appeared to be living in adequate conditions at that traditional two-story house, Whittington said. They were transported by ambulance to a local hospital to be evaluated and then relocated to a licensed facility.

The houses shut down Thursday had been the subject of complaints from residents or neighbors, police said.

Detective D. Poythress of DeKalb Police said the new law has enabled police to look into unlicensed homes that they previously would not have had probable cause to investigate unless another crime had been reported there.

“This allows us to go out and see if these people are being exploited or abused, and if they are getting the proper care,” Poythress said.

But some lawmakers say even that law didn’t go far enough to protect elderly and disabled adults in Georgia.

Proposed legislation unanimously approved by state House members on Thursday (HB 78) would make it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to a $50,000 fine to commit the crime of cruelty to an elderly or disabled adult.

Obstructing an investigation into abuses or intimidating a victim would be a misdemeanor of high and aggravated nature punishable by up to a year in prison and up to $5,000 fine.

In addition, the bill would help prosecutors preserve a victims’ testimony with a videotaped deposition if they are over 78 years old, at risk of dying or of becoming mentally incapacitated.

The legislation now goes to the state Senate for consideration. The bill’s sponsor State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said the busts in DeKalb are “a strong example of why we need stronger sanctions.”

“These people are at the mercy of whoever is running this private facility with low oversight,” Willard said. “We didn’t have really strong laws or much interest from law enforcement to do the things that were necessary to protect them. This is why I see the legislation as a major initiative.”