Politics & Government

Troubled state schools for people with disabilities lose federal certifications

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2010 file photo, residents pass through an outside walkway at the Rainier School in Buckley, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)
FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2010 file photo, residents pass through an outside walkway at the Rainier School in Buckley, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file) AP

Key parts of two state facilities serving people with developmental and intellectual disabilities have been stripped of federal certification after failing to meet care standards for residents.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued written notices Tuesday saying struggling portions of Rainier School in Buckley and Fircrest School in Shoreline did not pass several tests in the last two years to determine if treatment and staffing is adequate.

The federal ruling does not mean the closure of the schools. The state plans to appeal the CMS decision and negotiate an improvement plan with the federal government.

But it is the latest black eye for the state’s residential habilitation centers. In recent years, they have dealt with allegations of sexual assault, choking deaths and other problems in recent years.

The Department of Social and Health Services oversees four of them, including Rainier and Fircrest.

“We have been working proactively to address these issues and are committed to achieving compliance,” said Evelyn Perez, an assistant secretary at DSHS who oversees the Developmental Disabilities Administration, in a statement.

In letters to the state about the new decision, CMS does not detail the violations at the habilitation centers. But a report compiled with state data from 2016 shows a host of problems at the schools.

At the four habilitation centers, state surveyors in 2016 reported 257 allegations of injuries with unknown origins, 25 allegations of accidents and 16 reports on misuse of seclusion and restraints.

Rainier School also has been slapped with lawsuits in two recent cases with particularly harrowing allegations.

The foster family of Joe McDermond, who was living at the school at the time, is suing the state after allegations he fell into Alder Lake last year and nearly drowned.

State caretakers had left him strapped into his wheelchair at the end of a dock.

McDermond has a rare seizure disorder that caused severs brain damage. He has the mind of a 12-month-old.

The family of Maryann Stallone is suing the state, saying DSHS didn’t protect her from being raped by a Rainier School employee in 2016. Pierce County prosecutors charged one of the school’s workers last year with raping her at the facility.

Stallone is autistic and is non-verbal, according to her family.

In both cases, DSHS officials declined to comment on pending litigation.

Two men living at Rainier School choked to death within roughly a year, according to The Associated Press. One died in August 2015; the other in August 2016.

State officials have said choking is an ongoing concern at the habilitation centers and that people with developmental disabilities often have problems swallowing.

DSHS spokeswoman Lisa Copeland said the state also has struggled to fully staff its habilitation centers, which she said are underfunded.

If the state wins its appeal of the CMS decision, an improvement plan with the federal government would allow a 12-month window to improve the facilities, according to DSHS.

During that time, the state will continue to get federal money for residents already at the the schools, the agency said. Regulators will continue to withhold federal dollars for new residents due to issues at the facilities. They have been doing so for more than a year.

The schools have not been accepting new residents, and have directed them to other treatment options, Copeland said.

Fircrest currently has about 200 residents and Rainier School has about 310.

About 100 residents in each school are in facilities that received decertification letters, although CMS has ordered corrective action from other facilities at Rainier School, said Donald Clintsman, a deputy assistant secretary at DSHS in the department that oversees developmental disabilities services.

The two centers are split up into portions that operate independently and sometimes serve different functions.

At Fircrest School for instance, one facility within the larger center focuses on helping residents gain and keep skills, known as “intermediate care.”

Another is for residents who need more help with health care, known as “nursing facilities.”

Only the intermediate care facility at Fircrest School lost its certification. At Rainier School, one of three intermediate care facilities lost certification. The other two have faced corrective action.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed spending about $9.5 million to hire staff members at intermediate care facilities at the habilitation centers as part of his 2018 supplemental budget proposal.

“We also recognize that more resources are needed,” Perez said, adding she was “grateful” for the governor’s budget proposal.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein