NEW PORT RICHEY — John Ross says he isn't going down without a fight.
The administrator of Hillandale, an assisted living facility for the mentally ill that recently came under fire after a Miami Herald investigation uncovered allegations of abuse and neglect, says he plans to appeal an effort by state regulators to shut down the 7-year-old home, which is licensed to house 24 people.
"I will defend this to the fullest extent possible," he said. Ross declined to disclose details about his case but said the home's attorney plans to file an appeal within the 21 days allowed by state law.
Last week, he opened the 5,976 square-foot home to a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer after the state filed paperwork to revoke the home's license. The walls sport a fresh coat of beige paint, and residents' rooms are decorated with posters and photos of their choosing. Ross proudly pointed out how every bedroom has cable television and residents get to swim in an outdoor pool. Above one man's bed was a certificate showing he successfully completed an anger management course.
"We're nothing like the Westbury House," he said, referring to a nearby ALF that was shut down last year after investigators found filthy bathrooms, dirty linens and broken furniture. The state also found that the owner called one resident "a cripple," and a staffer tried to trick a resident into eating pudding mixed with a laxative after the two were involved in a tiff.
"Let me show you the infamous closet," Ross said sarcastically as he opened the door of a room that had once been available to confine unruly residents until state regulators ordered it discontinued in 2005. The Herald said the room was used routinely; Ross said it was used only once for a total of four minutes.
Today the room, which has a light, is used to store residents' out-of-season clothes. The door has a standard lock, not the magnetic one that investigators alleged was used six years ago.
However, neither the closet, nor the home's level of cleanliness, which has never been a focus of criticism, has anything to do with the recent efforts to shutter the home, part of the Mapleway chain. The other two homes, located in Pinellas County, are not currently being shut down, though state regulators are seeking to end their ability to collect Medicaid payments.
State regulators cited two incidents, the rape of a 27-year-old resident by a staffer and a string of attacks that put residents in "imminent danger" or that could result in "death or serious physical or emotional harm." The law requires the state to close ALFs that get cited for two serious violations that are similar to previous citations within a two-year period.
In Hillandale's case, the state said it had "independent and multiple grounds" to close the home.
The 33-page complaint cites the suspected rape of a resident by 57-year-old caregiver Orlando Baez.
The complaint says Ross said he suspended Baez for four days for "crossing boundaries," but did not monitor the two to ensure the woman's safety. Ross told the Times he later learned sexual activity had already occurred, and if he had known that, he would have fired Baez on the spot and called police.
State reports say that four staffers became suspicious that Baez was engaged in sexual activity with the woman, who suffered from autism, bipolar disorder and seizures and was under her mother's guardianship. One employee told investigators that the woman referred to Baez as her "boyfriend," and that she had had "relations" with him.
Even the facility's owner, Amelia Cowles, told authorities she was warned two weeks before the woman revealed the sexual activity that Baez had been seen kissing the woman, but she failed to report the incident, the complaint charges.
The woman told investigators she had a "special relationship" with Baez and that the two had sex in the back of the women's restroom.
Ross said he's uncertain whether sexual intercourse took place.
"I think it was mostly touching," he said.
As for the kiss, he said it was on the cheek and that state laws specifically say that "expressions of natural affection" don't count as abuse.
"If that's the case, then every ALF had better beware," he said.
The woman has been moved to another home. Baez's case is pending.
The second part of the complaint says Ross allowed a man who had violent tendencies to live in the home. The man, a former foster child, told investigators he used bullying and aggression to cope while in foster homes. His own doctor told investigators the man suffered from "homicidal" and "suicidal" tendencies. After being arrested on a domestic battery charge and jailed for a month in the assault of a fellow resident, the man was allowed to return to Hillandale.
State reports say the man then attacked at least six other residents. Two residents said they didn't report the attacks because the man threatened them if they did.
The state says administrators were aware of the violence but did nothing.
But Ross said residents whose doctors say they are no longer a threat are allowed to return. He said the man in question was being "egged on" in some cases by other residents. Just like in Alzheimer's wards, he said, hitting among the mentally ill is common.
"They're like brothers and sisters," he said, adding that the average age at Hillandale is 25 and most of those function at even younger levels.
"That's pure, utter nonsense," said Dr. Alan Lipton, retired chief of psychiatry for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. "There's no normal level of hitting. It's probably a reaction to the situation and the way he's being treated, not the innate illness."
Lipton said there are many homes where there is no fighting among residents because they are being treated properly.
"These places don't have to be recreations of Bedlam," he said, referring to the English insane asylum of the 1300s notorious for its cruelty and inhumane treatment.
"Even the most sick people can be taken care of reasonably even if their thoughts or emotions are muddled."
Ross said no one was hurt in the incidents, even though the state report refers to a hand injury. When the man refused to obey a staffer's order to stop bothering a resident with Down Syndrome, Ross had him removed.
"I guess (the state) didn't think we did enough," he said. The big problem facing assisted living facilities for people with mental illness, Ross said, is that no rules were ever drawn up for them. Instead, these homes are forced to comply with rules that were developed to govern homes for the elderly, which is a far different clientele than what Hillandale serves.
"These are not seniors lying in their beds," he said. Ross said he hopes a new ALF task force being formed by Gov. Rick Scott will recognize this and develop rules tailored to facilities that care for mentally ill people.
Despite the negative headlines, Ross is not without supporters.
Denise Flanders, whose 23-year-old daughter has been Baker Acted more than 300 times, said she "cried my eyes out" after learning of the state's action.
Her daughter had once been at Westbury House, a place Flanders described as "disgusting." She has been at Hillandale for four months, and already Flanders has seen an improvement.
"She needs the structure they offer," Flanders said. "She comes home on the weekends, and we have no problems." She said the staffers even help the residents with their hair and nails. She called the rape "an isolated incident."
If Hillandale closes, Flanders fears she will be unable to find a place that will accept her daughter.
"The system is broken down," she said. "They need Hillandale. They really do."