NEW PORT RICHEY — Facing allegations that it seriously jeopardized residents' safety, a home for mentally ill clients is appealing the state's effort to revoke its license and shut it down.
Hillandale Home at 6333 Langston Ave. is asking an administrative law judge to decide whether state regulators acted properly by ordering the facility to shut down. The home, which can house up to 24 residents, remains open while Hillandale pursues the appeal.
The facility also wants the judge to order regulators to remove from public records any allegations that are not proved at the hearing, and dismiss the charges and more than $20,000 in fines.
"The substantial interests of Hillandale are affected, and the administrative complaint damages its reputation in the community," attorney Christina Mesa wrote in a 13-page appeal filed Friday.
Hillandale was featured prominently in a recent Miami Herald investigation of assisted living facilities across Florida. It accused Hillandale of using violent takedowns and restraints and locking unruly residents in a closet, sometimes for hours. Hillandale administrator John Ross has said restraints were used with state permission and a time-out room was used only once for four minutes. The room was converted to a supply closet several years ago.
Last month, the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates assisted living facilities, ordered Hillandale to close after a 27-year-old female resident was allegedly sexually assaulted by a caregiver in May. Staffer Orlando Baez was arrested in connection with the incident, which state regulators alleged Hillandale owners could have prevented by taking action when the relationship appeared to be improper. State regulators said the woman was under the guardianship of her mother and unable to consent to sex.
The state also cited Hillandale for allowing a man with violent tendencies to live in the home after he was jailed in connection with attacking fellow residents. State regulators said people who hit other residents should not be housed in these types of facilities.
The state said the violations could put residents in jeopardy of "death or serious physical or emotional harm."
The action followed an order cutting off Medicaid payments to Hillandale, but the administrator said the amount was so low — about $9 per person per day — that it wouldn't affect the facility's ability to offer services.
In its appeal, Hillandale denied the state's allegations that it failed to provide an environment free from abuse and neglect, that it failed to provide proper supervision, and that it failed to take residents' allegations of abuse by housemates seriously.
It also alleged that the investigators asked residents leading questions and failed to properly evaluate the home during visits.
The state's allegations were also based on "erroneous or incomplete information, improper assessments or perceptions of the facility." It said state regulators also failed to discuss the alleged findings with the home's administrators and that allegations are "vague" and that investigators did not provide administrators with a list of which resident said what, making it impossible to provide a defense.
As for the reported rape, the appeal said, Hillandale staff were not aware of any improper relationship between Baez and the woman, whose guardian had no authority over her decision to have any relationship, sexual or otherwise.
When it became apparent that sexual activity had occurred, the administrator reported it to the Sheriff's Office. However, a detective closed the case, saying nothing illegal happened because the woman said she consented. The administrator then cited the law to the detective that said a developmentally disabled person's consent does not mean no arrest can be made. Deputies later arrested Baez.
That the staffer had previously kissed the woman on the cheek was not enough to call the state abuse hotline as "expressions of natural affection" are not considered abuse, the appeal said.
As for the violent resident attacking housemates, the state failed to investigate whether other residents' behavior contributed to the man's actions, the appeal said.
Some residents even "laughed" about the circumstances surrounding the aggressive resident's behavior, the appeal said.
The man, who was forced to leave the home after disobeying a staff member, is now living in a similar home elsewhere, the appeal said.