MOBILE, AL. (WALA)- Safety concerns, a lack of money and proper inspections, it's the latest into a FOX10 News Investigation on group homes.
FOX10 News Investigates first began digging deeper into this, after the death of a group home patient in Mobile this November. Now, people are reaching out to FOX10 News Investigates with concerns.
According to national studies, there's more need than ever for group homes in Alabama for those with mental or intellectual disabilities and that trend is only expected to continue. The need for group homes is there, but is the support?
Matthew Cox, gone too soon.
Through tears, Carol Easterwood, Matthew Cox's grandmother said, "I've really lost a lot, I've lost a lot."
Court documents said the 21-year-old with autism living in a group home in Mobile was stomped to death, allegedly, by his own caretaker. His family is now suing four companies for his death.
Matthew's dad, Ryan Cox said, "We hope this never happens to another family, another child again."
A person involved in the group home industry who wanted to remain anonymous said it didn't have to happen.
"When you start cutting corners, you start putting peoples lives in jeopardy," the source said.
Our anonymous source said it all comes down to having less money to run the homes.
"One agency that I worked with actually was paying their staff $10 an hour. When the cuts came, they are now paying them $8 an hour and that affects the quality of work and it also affects the morale of the staff," the source said.
From 2009 to 2012, Alabama's Department of Mental Health took one of the largest budget cuts in state history, 36%, that's according to a study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.
That cut causing a ripple effect. On Halloween of 2012, Searcy Hospital in Mt. Vernon shut its doors for good. Just last year, Mobile Infirmary, the only hospital in our area serving inpatient psychiatric care, ended its services. Both closings sending hundreds of psychiatric patients from controlled environments to community based programs or group homes.
James tucker, Director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program said the need for mental healthcare is the same, but how patients are treated has shifted.
"The number of persons who are living in Group homes as opposed to living in the warehouses that existed in the state of several decades ago of several hundred to literally more than a 1000, naturally when you have persons served in a different place, you’re going to have more persons in the new setting," said Tucker.
A report by the University of Colorado shows the trend will continue. Nearly 880,000 people are expected to be in a group home by 2030. That's double the number from 2000.
Since group homes are a fairly new trend, Tucker said the way they are regulated has many flaws.
In the case of Matthew Cox, Trent Yates, his caregiver at the time, was able to work at Matthew's group home called New Way Out, despite pleading guilty to a previous assault charge. In that case, court records say he assaulted a man so badly, he was admitted into the hospital.
Tucker said, "What are the qualifications of the individuals Who are hired to provide care for persons with disabilities in a setting like that and what are the background checks, what is the degree of training, and then what kind of supervision is provided?"
The anonymous source we spoke to said a huge issue is in the way homes are certified. The state department of mental health designates one person to certify homes in 10 counties. That means one person is checking up on 572 locations.
"There are hundreds of homes in this area and for one person to be responsible for all of these homes to see if they are doing what they’re supposed to be doing is just mathematically impossible," a source said.
Our source said there used to be two certifiers for every 10 counties, but after those major budget cuts, there's now only one.
FOX10 News Investigates made several attempts to contact the Region III Certifier, but he never returned our emails or calls.
Our source said if a home receives a score of a 90 or better, he won't visit for two years. If the home scores an 80 through 89, the certifier visits every year and if the home scores a 79 and below the certifier goes back after 60 days.
As the Cox family continues to mourn, they just want something to change, so it doesn't happen again.
Matthew's dad said, "Our goals and hopes for the future is that his legacy is remembered by protecting other children, other adults that are in this group homes so they don't have to go through the same thing."
FOX10 News Investigates filed an open records request with the department of mental health, asking for inspection reports on all group homes in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. The department told FOX10 News Investigates, they would not give us that information because they say it is private information protected by Health Insurance Portability and Accountabilty, or HIPAA.
Click this link to look up group homes in Alabama to see how they score.