Janaia Barnhart’s almost three years in a Delaware group home were coming to an end.
Barnhart, 15, started Sept. 12 in a good mood, according to her Baltimore attorney. It was a good start for a girl who was in the facility that cares for and educates children and adults with cognitive and behavioral disabilities — youths who are more difficult to place and care for because of their specialized needs.
Barnhart, diagnosed with cognitive disabilities and an aggressive behavioral disorder, was to be transferred out of the AdvoServ group home facility in Bear, Delaware, to a Maryland facility — possibly in days. Instead, the girl’s last moments were captured by a video camera in some kind of dispute with staff at the facility, her lawyer said. The last images of Barnhart that can be seen are of the girl pushing a care-giver into her small room, which is then quickly entered by four other staffers, according to Julia Arfaa, a Baltimore-based attorney representing Janaia’s family.
What happened inside that room is unknown, but 21 minutes later the staff calls 911 to report that Janaia, a girl with no significant medical problems beyond those that brought her to the facility, is in cardiac arrest.
Janaia Barnhart was taken first to a hospital in Christiana, Delaware, and later to Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. She died on Sept. 14 after doctors determined that she had suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation. She was disconnected from life support, according to Arfaa.
“What 15-year old goes into cardiac arrest from being restrained?” asked Arfaa, who said she is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of the family. “I don’t know what happened in that room. All I know is that five large women go into that small room with a 15-year-old girl and when they come out 21 minutes later, she’s dead. I can tell you that whatever happened in that room was not appropriate.”
Arfaa’s account of the minutes leading up to Janaia Barnhart’s death are the first made public since the teen died last month.
Her death remains under investigation. Delaware State Police and other law enforcement officials as well as officials at the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which had a contract with AdvoServ have all declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation.
AdvoServ has also not responded to requests for comment.
Arfaa said she has not yet been able to get information on the death, the condition of the girl’s body including any bruising or even a death certificate needed to set up the estate for the child. The attorney said a Delaware medical examiner said final results of some tests might not be available for 15 weeks.
Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, could not immediately confirm Arfaa’s account that the teen was about to be moved.
Morris declined to comment on the Arfaa’s claims that the teen was days from being transferred from the Delaware facility, saying “there is a pending investigation by Delaware law enforcement authorities arising out of the death of the youth, therefore while the investigation is pending DHR will not disclose any additional information.”
AdvoServ has come under scrutiny for deaths of residents it was paid to care for and for the use of so-called mechanical restraints, including wrist cuffs and devices called mat wraps, a full-body straight jacket device that some say causes injuries, according to a 2015 investigation by ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization.
In its report, ProPublica noted that Advoserv’s Carlton Palms facility in Florida “is one of a dozen residential programs nationwide where two or more children have died in separate incidents from potentially preventable causes.” The report noted that one 14-year-old girl who died at the facility after reportedly being tied to a bed and a chair.
Maryland prohibits the use of mechanical restraints, according to Leslie Margolis, managing attorney for Disability Rights Maryland.
Prior to Barnhart’s death, the state was already concerned about the facility.
In August, the state conducted two unannounced inspections of the facilities in Delaware — AdvoServ has three. The results of those inspections are not fully public.
Morris described the violations as record-keeping and minor facilities’ issues in the residential and common areas akin to “broken cabinets or light fixtures.”
The violations apparently were serious enough that state officials decided to stop all placements at the group homes, including those already pending. It is not clear what triggered the response.
Morris said that officials were already in the process of terminating the 2012 contract with AdvoServ before Barnhart died. The termination letter that went out to Advoserv on Sept. 16, two days after the teen died, was the result of those earlier concerns and not the death of the girl, she said.
As of Monday, the agency had one youth still in an AdvoServ facility in Delaware, down from 30 on Aug. 30. There is also one youth in an AdvoServ home in Florida.
Morris said the girl in Florida “is in care under a voluntary placement by her mother, who resides in Florida. DHR is working with this youth’s mother and the local social services agency and authorities in Florida to develop a plan for the youth’s long-term care.”
Arfaa said Janaia Barnhart’s mom also had concerns for her daughter that centered on a lack of one-to-one care that the teen was supposed to receive as well as interactions with adult residents who were also diagnosed with aggression disorders.
“You don’t want a 15-year-old girl in a house with adults with aggression disorder,” Arfaa said. “Her mom said things were not being done that should have been done.”
There was an effort to transfer Barnhart to a new facility in Maryland with the goal of eventually transitioning her back home with her family, Arfaa said.
On the morning of Sept. 12, Barnhart was said to have been happy and getting ready for school, which she attended at the same facility, according to Arfaa, who said she interviewed staff from the facility.
Arfaa said the mother was told that the girl was resisting efforts to get dressed for school and ultimately urinated and defecated on herself — a claim the attorney said runs contrary to what can be seen from the camera that is in the facility’s hallway. There is no audio and no vantage point into the room, Arfaa said.
The video shows a female staffer come to the room with a large plastic trash bag. Arfaa said an employee there described a dispute over Barnhart’s room and a demand for the girl to clean it up, with an aide threatening to throw Barnhart’s personal belongings out if the girl does not comply with the demand.
The attorney says the video also shows the staffer push the girl, who pushes the staffer back into her room. The girl follows into the room as do four other female staffers.
A closet door in the hallway is opened, blocking the view of the camera.
By 8:47, a call to 911 is placed and a staffer can be seen going to the room with two pieces of what appear to be plastic wrap, Arfaa said.
“If they’re doing CPR they’re not getting a defibrillator or anything from the hallway to do anything,” Arfaa said. Barnhart was without a pulse for at least 10 minutes at one point and needed to be resuscitated in the ambulance, Arfaa said.