HOMES OF ILL REPUTE

IF YOU'RE MENTALLY RETARDED AND LIVING IN ARIZONA, BEWARE. THIS STATE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.

The state is also lagging in other critical areas. That's because of miserly budget appropriations by the State Legislature and a sluggish government bureaucracy that places a premium on paperwork rather than serving an extremely vulnerable population.

The result is a veritable minefield of troubles:
* Turnover. Most group-home staff members don't last long on the job. "Their lack of pay is this state's biggest problem," says Barb Ficker of the Association of Retarded Citizens, a national advocacy organization. Arizona's group-home operators pay employees who work directly with retarded residents an average of $4.50 an hour. For most, it's not worth it after a while.

* Licensing. Arizona is woefully deficient in its licensing and monitoring of group homes. Just four state workers have been responsible for the annual inspection of Arizona's 270 privately run group homes. This personnel shortage has forced the state to issue "provisional" licenses to more than half of Arizona's private group homes. That's because no one from the state's licensing unit has inspected the homes within a year as mandated by law. Twelve of the 21 group homes operated in Arizona by AIRES have "provisional" licenses.

* Inspections. None of the 53 state-run group homes has been inspected by the licensing unit since the Arizona Legislature created it in 1987. The state last week committed to inspecting all of its group homes by September. But advocates wonder how thorough those inspections will be.

* Paperwork. Too much time goes to filling out forms. Each mentally retarded person who lives in a group home has a state case manager, who is supposed to ensure the homes are providing a decent quality of life. Case management, according to a 1989 report issued by Arizona's Systems Safeguard Committee, "is a critical safeguard for persons with disabilities." However, the committee--made up of state employees, parents of mentally retarded people and advocates--concluded, "Case managers are currently spending more time doing paperwork . . . than with persons served."

* Fingerprinting. The state's fingerprinting law--designed in part to ferret out prospective group-home employees with criminal backgrounds--isn't doing its job. Although in-state checks can be done in two weeks, it takes the FBI about six months to return the results of its nationwide criminal checks on social-services applicants, says DDD program administrator David Lara. By that time, many group-home employees have come and gone. "Arizona has such a transient population that this is a potentially dangerous thing," he says.

* Investigations. Police departments often give short shrift to criminal investigations involving developmentally disabled victims. And the state Department of Economic Security investigating team is frequently more concerned with the state's legal liability than in solving cases.

* Inadequate recordkeeping. In a one-year period that ended June 30, group homes around Arizona reported 1,718 "unusual incidents" to state authorities. The state defines an "unusual incident" as "an occurrence that involves death, serious personal injury, or property damage . . . " The state determined that 640 of those cases merited investigation. That included 48 cases of alleged physical abuse and seventeen cases of alleged sexual abuse by staff against group-home residents. But Lara says his agency does not have the outcome of the investigations on its computers.

"You have to go through each file case by case to get that," Lara says.
* Federal requirements. On December 19, 1988, Arizona signed onto a $45 million-a-year federal Medicaid program for long-term care of the developmentally disabled. The money has been a godsend, but with it came a weighty set of new rules and regulations atop the $140 million-a-year bureaucracy already in place. The state doesn't have the manpower to meet the requirements.

"We're dying under the weight of all this," says state Developmental Disabilities Division chief Lyn Rucker. "I'm tremendously concerned how we can have an adequate safety net out there when our needs way outstrip our ability to respond."

Rucker took over the troubled agency in 1987 and by most accounts is trying to turn things around. But one highly regarded bureaucrat does not a successful agency make. Three years after the attack on Mike Coppock, little has changed.

AIRES lost its license in 1988 to operate Mike's group home. The firm retains licenses, however, to 21 other homes around the state, and its annual contract with the state totals almost $3 million.

Mike is still living in Casa Grande, at a group home operated by another firm. His dad has become embittered by his dealings with what he calls "an inhumane state bureaucracy."

"The state created the atmosphere that allows these things to happen," says George Coppock. "All I know is that Mike and these kids have to have someplace to live. I don't want to attack the group home. I just don't want any more bad things to happen to Mike."

And what of Danny Britton, the AIRES staffer who tried to have sex with Mike Coppock?

Casa Grande police arrested Britton after hearing his confession. The Coolidge man's family bailed him out of jail a day later. In early 1988, Britton plea-bargained to a felony charge of attempting to sexually assault Mike. Pinal County Superior Court Judge E.D. McBryde sentenced Britton to four years' probation. The lenient judge then sent him on his way, to a new job as a cross-country truck driver.

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