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Md. approves group home contracts with owners under scrutiny

Janaia Barnhart. (Submitted photo)

Janaia Barnhart. (Submitted photo)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland has extended its contract with an out-of-state group home provider in Florida despite having canceled its agreement with the company’s subsidiary last year when a developmentally disabled Maryland child died from injuries suffered there under mysterious circumstances.

Maryland officials Wednesday said they agreed to the five-year nearly $1.2 million contract with Carlton Palms Educational Palms Center to provide care for a 19-year-old woman until she exhausts her eligibility for paid services. No new Maryland youths will be sent to the facility, officials said.

The three-person Board of Public Works, which is led by Gov. Larry Hogan, Wednesday unanimously approved five contracts totaling $9 million over the next five years with out-of-state group home providers.

A spokeswoman for Hogan said the Department of Human Resources intends to discontinue the contract with Carlton Palms once the unidentified woman turns 21. Carlton Palms is owned by Bellwether Behavioral Health, which formerly was known as Advoserv. The state canceled its contracts with the Bear, Delaware, company last fall after the death of Janaia Barnhart, a 15-year-old Maryland girl, at its Delaware facility.

“Since that tragic death, the state has not and will not make new placements in Advoserv facilities,” Amelia Chassé, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Wednesday.

Chassé said the state would end the contract with Carlton Palms in as little as 18 months once the woman turned 21 and was no longer eligible for state services. It is not immediately known why the state entered into a five-year deal totaling nearly $1.2 million with the company.

“Once this youth is out of the facility, we will sever this contract and will not place any more youth in this facility,” Chassé said.

Two of the companies with whom the Board of Public Works approved contracts Wednesday — Bellwether and Bancroft Neurohealth of New Jersey — have come under scrutiny for treatment of children.

The Carlton Palms facility is under review by the state of Florida, which is seeking to close down the group home by 2019 after several assaults were reported, according to Orlando Sentinel.

In New Jersey, two employees of Bancroft Neurohealth where charged in late 2015 with assaulting two special needs teens, according to the Courier-Post newspaper.

“That doesn’t seem particularly good,” said Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, one of the BPW members, during an exchange Wednesday with Gregory James, the acting secretary of the state.

“Are you confident that you’ve properly vetted these companies?” Franchot asked. “For example, have you talked to Florida about what exactly their concerns were? Are we OK? I understand you don’t have the services here in-state but out of sight out of mind in Florida in some for-profit facility where their employees are perhaps engaging in some reprehensible behavior, I guess is the only way to describe it — what are we doing to protect our kids?”

Last year, the state canceled its contracts with most of Advoserv’s facilities after Barnhart’s death. The Maryland teen died in a Bear group home run by Advoserv in December. James did not refer to Barnhart’s death during his Wednesday testimony before the board and he did not disclose that his department had severed nearly all ties with Advoserv’s other facilities last year.

“The safety and welfare of children, any child placed in the care of the state, is our highest priority,” James said, adding that no children from Maryland have been placed in the Bancroft Neurohealth facility since July 2015.

James, however, acknowledged during the meeting that his department continues to monitor the woman in the Florida group home because of concerns his department has about Advoserv.

James said the department wanted the contract in place with Bancroft Neurohealth to give the state options since only two in-state companies provide services similar to the New Jersey company. He added that the department does quarterly monitoring of out-of-state programs and that caseworkers for children placed in those facilities “visit those children monthly to ensure their safety and well-being.”

Currently, the state has only one child placed in the Carlton Palms facility.

“That placement is one we’ve given considerable review to because of the concerns we’ve had about that provider,” James said.

Officials at Bellwether did not respond to a request for comment.

The now-19-year-old girl was placed in the Florida facility under a voluntary agreement in 2009.

Chassé, Hogan’s spokeswoman, said the woman was sent there at the request of the mother, who also now lives in Florida and has weekly visits with her daughter.

Both James and Chassé said the unidentified woman was doing well in her current group home setting.

Typically, the department sends children to facilities outside of Maryland when there are no other suitable options available in-state.

The Daily Record reported in October that state had severed its contract with what was then known as Advoserv following the death of Barnhart. At that time, Department of Human Resources officials said only the woman in Florida would continue to be served by the company.

An attorney for Barnhart’s family said last year that the girl was days away from being transferred out of the facility when she died.

The circumstances surrounding girl’s death remain unclear. Her last moments were captured on video as some kind of dispute erupted between the youth and staff at the facility, according to Julia Arfaa, a Baltimore attorney representing Janaia’s family.

Arfaa, who did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment, said in an interview last October that the video showed the girl pushing a caregiver into a small room. Four other staffers can be seen following the pair into that room.

About 21 minutes later the staff calls 911 to report that Barnhart, a girl with no significant medical problems beyond those that brought her to the facility, is in cardiac arrest, according to the attorney.

The girl 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.

Leslie Seid Margolis, managing attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, said her organization was unaware of the contracts until notified by a reporter and added she was “quite concerned.”

“We feel strongly that, rather than sending children to out-of-state residential programs, DHR’s efforts would be better directed to increasing access to a range of in-home and community supports to enable children to remain with their families, and on increasing the number of therapeutic foster homes for those children who are unable to remain with their families,” Margolis said.

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