Exclusive: Loophole allows 'flop houses' for mentally ill

The missing persons flier for Shalom Carter, whose disappearance from a group home went unreported for six days
  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • July 30, 2009 @ 6:00 AM
The building on South Wentworth that Bridging the Gap lists as its office | Credit: Geoff Dougherty

The South Side group home that waited six days to notify a mentally ill resident's family of his disappearance earlier this month was in business even though its parent company is dissolved, its property has been foreclosed upon, its business office is boarded up and its phones are disconnected.

No one was monitoring the situation at the Bridging the Gap facility because a legal loophole in Illinois allows such community homes to care for a fragile mental health population without state regulation or supervision, a Daily News investigation shows.

“It’s another one of those horrifying little sidebars in public mental health policy in Illinois,” says Tony Zipple, CEO of Thresholds, an organization that provides services to about 7,000 mentally ill Chicagoans. “These places are essentially unregulated.”

Shalom Carter, 32, walked away from the Bridging the Gap community living facility on July 5. He was found 18 days later after he'd walked about 13 miles from the home to a suburban Cook County bar, where he was then arrested and placed in a mental health facility.

Bridging the Gap's Web site says it is a non-profit communal living facility that provides services to residents with physical or mental challenges.

It offers 24-hour monitoring, medication management, case management and psychosocial rehabilitation conducted by "credentialed care teams," at three South Side locations, the site says.

But a trip to those locations provides a different picture.

One of the homes has been vacant for about a month, neighbors say, and the other is boarded up. All three homes have been foreclosed upon, records show.

The address listed as Bridging the Gap's business offices is boarded up, and has been for years, according to neighbors. Phone numbers for the homes are disconnected; a phone number for the business office directs callers to another number that goes unanswered.

On two recent evening visits, a resident told a Daily News reporter that no staff members were present because they were working other jobs.

Records at the Illinois Secretary of State's office show the company was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2007, but was dissolved in 2008 after failing to file an annual report.

Incorporation documents list the company's officers as Cynthia Berry, Tanya Lee and Toya Westbrook.

Berry and Lee could not be reached for comment.

Westbrook says Berry approached her to help start Bridging the Gap. But Westbrook quickly realized Berry and Lee did not know enough about providing mental health services to run a business.

“I didn’t know much about it. That’s why I got out of it,” says Westbrook, who says she withdrew from the business after about a week. “They started something, but they didn’t know what they were doing.”

Strict standards

Other states have strict rules regarding regulation of group homes.

Florida, for example, requires all homes providing mental health services to be certified by the state and to have a nurse on staff.

“I think there is somewhat of an understanding, at least in Florida, if you put your loved one in a facility with a license…there’s at least some minimum standards of oversight for those facilities,” says Dr. J. Paul Rollings, a regional director of mental health services for Florida's Department of Children and Family Services.

New York’s laws dictate homes providing services to five or more unrelated people be licensed, and require swift notification of missing residents.

Michigan outlines the duties expected of staff members at so-called adult foster care homes.

In Illinois, several agencies share regulation of homes for the mentally ill.

The Illinois Department of Public Health certifies homes that include nursing care. The Department of Human Services certifies nearly 2,500 homes that receive state and federal dollars to care for the mentally ill, but does not license those that receive no government money. The Department of Children and Family Services certifies foster homes and day care for children.

Cathy Cumpston, chief of DHS's Bureau of Accreditation, Licensure and Certification, says it’s not uncommon for group homes in Illinois to operate with no oversight.

“Quite often in settings where people with mental illness live, there’s no licensure from (the Department of Public Health). DHS has no licensing standards for homes for people with mental illness,” she says.

The state does not allow hospitals to discharge mental health patients to unlicensed group homes because they are “are not adequate for provision of mental health care,” says Dan Wasmer, acting regional director of DHS's  mental health division.

But it does not stop such homes from caring for other patients outside of government-funded programs.

“A person can say they provide (mental health services) and charge somebody for it, but if the person’s willing to pay for it directly, they don’t have to be involved with (the mental health department) at all,” Wasmer says.

Rogue homes

Mental health advocates say the state's patchwork of regulation allows the operation of rogue homes, which receive no state or federal money and can operate by their own rules, sometimes to the detriment of mentally ill residents.

“What they amount to is really unregulated boarding homes,” says Zipple, the Thresholds CEO.

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), a member of the Senate’s human services committee, says the lack of oversight of such group homes is part of a state-wide trend that isolates people with mental illnesses.

She worries that the lack of oversight of group homes could have devastating consequences.

“You’ve seen what happens there with the cemeteries where there’s no license, either,” she says.

It’s unclear how many unlicensed homes exist in Chicago.

“I wish I knew. We have tried to get an answer to that question,” says Deborah Kennedy, director of the abuse and investigation unit for Equip for Equality, a group that advocates for the legal rights of the mentally ill.

Opportunities for entrepreneurs

Suzanne Andriukatis, executive director of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Greater Chicago, says it’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to start such operations with the dual goals of helping people and making money.

But with no government funding, and the group homes relying on meager rent checks from tenants, there is little they can do in the way of providing services, she says.

“What they basically are then is a flop house,” Andriukatis says. “Where the problem comes in is when they give themselves a name that sounds like they’re an organization that gives themselves a name beyond what they’re capable of doing.”

Shalom Carter’s mother, Eileen Love, says she was considering suing Bridging the Gap before her son was found.

When he disappeared, she says, workers at the home didn’t notify the family because they believed Carter’s “free spirit” wasn’t a cause for worry.

The home never called the police. Bridging the Gap notified the family six days after Carter left the home. Carter's family called the Chicago Police Department. Officers circulated flyers about Carter's disappearance, one of which ended up at the mental health center where he was eventually committed.

After Bridging the Gap's lapse, Love says, the organization worked hard to help find her son.

“This Bridging the Gap helps guys,” she says. "This could have worked for him."

One resident who was recently released from jail, she says, was able to get his life in order after living in the home.

But, she says, representatives from the home told her it was certified – by whom she isn’t sure – and they allowed Carter to smoke marijuana in the home. She says house managers pushed their cooking responsibilities to Carter and didn't enforce a curfew.

“He has income," Love says. "I think the bottom line is they just wanted to keep that income coming.”

Daily News staff writer Adrian Uribarri contributed to this report.

Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.