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Watchdog Finds Staffing, Bug Problems At Disabilities Facility

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Citing a lack of staff as the primary culprit, Florida’s leading watchdog group for people with disabilities says it has found dirty living conditions, including “black vents” on an air conditioner and a fire-ant infestation, at a state institution in Jackson County.

Patty Houghland, an investigator with the organization Disability Rights Florida, sent an email to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities this month highlighting a staffing shortage at Sunland Center in Marianna.

“What I am observing is that there is a staffing issue which translated to a health and safety issue,” she wrote in an Aug. 15 email to agency Deputy Director of Operations Clarence Lewis that was obtained by The News Service of Florida.

Agency spokeswoman Melanie Mowry Etters said the issues flagged in Houghland’s letter “have been or are being remedied.”

Etters also said Houghland spoke with an official at the facility and “seemed pleased with the progress” being made. Houghland, who has served in her position for 17 years, disagreed with Etters’ assessment.

“If I saw any progress, I probably would be pleased,” Houghland told the News Service during an interview Monday. “I am pleased they are trying to get staff. But I can’t say they do a good job of it.”

Houghland’s email to Lewis was sent eight days after she visited the Marianna facility.

Disability Rights Florida is a federally funded organization that works on behalf of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Houghland went to the facility from her Tallahassee office on behalf of two clients. One client lives in what Houghland called the “autism house.” The other client lives in what she called the “East Truman” building.

Her email to the agency said fire ants crawled on her client in the autism house and bit him while he was sleeping in his bed.

“This is the second event with fire ants,” she wrote underlining the words “second event.”

She said she also noted seven staff members for 15 residents. But seven of the residents require one-on-one supervision or constant visual oversight/

“If all staff are tied up with seven residents what is going on with the other eight?” Houghland asked. “My client was just walking around in the building.”

After speaking with some of the staff working at the autism building, Houghland said she was told that the shortage was so severe staff members have worked around the clock.

“You can turn out staff very quickly if they are doing double shifts,” she wrote in her email.

Sunland Center is a state-operated institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with the residents on Medicaid. The 500-plus acre campus in Marianna, about an hour west of Tallahassee, served as a military training base for pilots during World War II.

The facility is a self-contained community with a store, adult-education classroom space, and a recycling operation center where residents can work. It also includes a pool for exercise and recreation.

But Sunland also has had problems in the past.

In 2017, the Legislature passed what is known as a “claim” bill that awarded $1 million to Eddie Weekley and Charlotte Williams in the wrongful death of their son, Franklin Weekley, who disappeared from the center in December 2002.

After about a two-week pursuit of Franklin Weekley, the Department of Children and Families --- the agency with oversight of the Marianna facility at the time --- called off the search.

Franklin’s parents, who also have intellectual disabilities, were subsequently accused of harboring their son. But Franklin Weekley had never fled the sprawling campus. His decomposed body was found in 2004 in the basement of a nearby building by construction workers hired to demolish the building.

The state didn’t formally acknowledge the remains were Franklin Weekley’s body until 2007, with the Legislature passing the claim bill a decade later.

More recently, a complaint was filed in April with the state about inadequate staffing at the facility. Another complaint was filed in January about one of the Sunland residential buildings being out of hot water since October, when Hurricane Michael hit the area.

In addition to raising concerns about staffing and fire ants at the facility’s “autism house,” Houghland said in the email to the agency that her client in the “East Truman” building complained about the air temperatures in his room and wanted her to check it out.

“It was warm or very warm but that is not what caught my attention,” Houghland wrote in the email. “I went and looked at the air conditioning unit on the wall and was shocked. The vents were black and that is not the color of the unit. “

Houghland also noted “the house inside was not clean. I saw a lot of laundry in bags to be washed and asked if it was normal to have so much. Apparently the washer broke and it took so long to get it fix (ed) and the staff is still paying catch up.”

Marguerite Morgan, the Sunland superintendent, acknowledged in an email to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities’ Lewis that the facility is “indeed having issues with housekeeping services and that we have issued a financial consequence this past month.”

Etters said a cleaning company, General Building Maintenance, Inc., was hit with fines in June and July for “poor performance.” Etters wouldn’t disclose the amount of the penalty but told the News Service in an email that the assessment equaled 3 percent of the contract

Morgan also met with representatives of the company to discuss the maintenance contract this month.  Etters said that if “additional issues arise, Sunland will look at terminating the contract.”