Memo: Ill. knew of group home abuses

CHICAGO –Illinois officials knew developmentally disabled residents had been abused at a network of group homes in eastern Illinois two years before Paul McCann died following an alleged assault by staff members, according to government documents obtained by The Associated Press.

But the residents’ families, including McCann’s, say they had no idea about the problems.

Conditions at the group homes run by the nonprofit Graywood Foundation were “totally unacceptable,” according to a 2009 memo an Illinois investigator wrote to his bosses and the AP obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The memo was written almost a year after murder charges were filed against two employees in the 2008 death of Dustin Higgins, a resident who lived in a Graywood group home.

Finally, after the 42-year-old McCann died in January, Illinois cut off the money – almost $5 million a year – to Graywood and owner Augustine Oruwari of Charleston. The state moved the last six residents out of Graywood homes Saturday.

The nonprofit is appealing the state’s revocation of its license.

Illinois Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, is working on legislation to make more information available on group homes and force state regulators to intervene more aggressively and earlier when there are problems.

“We’ve clearly seen that the system failed the people who lived in the Graywood facilities,” Harris said. “This case makes you heartsick to read about it.”

The Illinois Department of Human Services, which oversees group homes for the developmentally disabled, declined an interview request because of the pending litigation involving Graywood.

“The health and safety of people served by IDHS are our top priority,” spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus in an email. “IDHS regards issues of abuse with the utmost seriousness and we continually seek ways to improve quality of care.”

Oruwari, Graywood Foundation’s owner, collected more than $600,000 in state money from Graywood for “management services” for the year ending June 30, 2009, according to an annual report Graywood filed with the state attorney general’s office. Yet Oruwari told the AP on Friday that he wasn’t personally involved in running the organization.

“I have an executive director ... I’m not [involved] in the day-to-day running of the program,” he said.

Oruwari’s attorney, Ed Wagner, said he had told his client not to talk to reporters.

McCann, who died Jan. 23, had the sweetness and mental capacity of a child, his sister said. He loved the Nat King Cole song “Unforgettable,” Chinese buffets and the tree-lined ridges around Charleston.

His ribs were broken in 13 places during the alleged assault, and he later died when his lungs filled with fluid. The Coles County coroner ruled his death a homicide, and two Graywood employees, Marquis Harmon, 22, of Danville, and Keyun Newble, 25, of East St. Louis, have been charged with first-degree murder.

McCann’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Graywood, claiming Newble and Harmon kicked and punched McCann for 45 minutes after punishing him for stealing food.

“Graywood was a very abusive and troubled place and should have been shut down a long time ago,” said the family’s attorney, Shawn Collins of Naperville. “The McCann family has to daily deal with the reality that their son did not have to die. If the Department of Human Services had shut it down, he wouldn’t have died.”

Slovick said on the weekend her brother died, she and her 79-year-old mother drove more than three hours from the Chicago area to Charleston after a doctor summoned them to spend McCann’s last hours with him in the hospital. Slovick photographed the bruises on her brother’s legs, chest and back before he died.

Then she and her mother met with a Charleston police detective who told them what he’d learned from other Graywood residents: Staff members punished residents by piling books on their outstretched arms until they dropped the volumes.

Harmon’s attorney, Ed Piraino, said his client received no training in working with developmentally disabled adults and that may have been an issue in the case.

“I’m not excusing what happened,” Piraino said. “But when you take a young man off the streets and put an ID card on him [without training], bad things happen.”

William Diggins, an investigations bureau chief in the Illinois Department of Human Services Office of Inspector General, warned his superiors that Graywood was obstructing investigations and failing to follow recommendations in his 2009 memo. The company’s rate of substantiated allegations was double the average for all the office’s investigations, and it had a “culture of no accountability,” Diggins wrote.

The memo shows state officials knew about Graywood’s problems nearly two years before McCann’s death, said Mike Kaminsky, director the Illinois Lifespan Project, which advocates for the developmentally disabled.

“It wasn’t a secret,” Kaminsky said. “The staff probably figured they could do whatever they wanted while they were there. That’s a sick culture to live in and to work in.”

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