Some homes intended to shelter poor, handicapped people have in recent years become havens for neglect and mistreatment.
And in a few cases, people have died.
Now, budget cuts are making it harder for state regulators to inspect the nearly 500 residential care homes across South Carolina.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control, saying its resources are dwindling, has changed its inspection process. DHEC now concentrates on “major indicators of care” at the homes, agency documents show, although agency officials wouldn’t explain more about the changes.
The budget cuts worry advocates for the handicapped.
“If DHEC is not given support and they don’t have the people to go out and do inspections and respond to complaints, you have no idea what is happening in these homes,’’ said residents’ advocate Anna Maria Darwin.
Her group, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, issued a report in 2009 that said South Carolina has failed those living in residential care homes, which serve people who are not well-to-do and are mentally and physically disabled, but not seriously enough to be in a nursing home.
The report called for more state funding for inspectors, citing “filthy” living conditions in some homes as well as the failure of staffers to administer medications properly. The report’s researchers found cockroach infestations, bloody walls and rotting food in some homes, most of which are privately owned.
State appropriations for DHEC’s health facilities licensing division dropped to $1.15 million this year from $1.44 million in 2009, according to agency budget records.
“With severe budget cuts, the agency has struggled to maintain an effective level of oversight …,’’ agency documents say.
Over the past three years, at least 16 people have left the agency’s health licensing division, and only some have been replaced, agency officials have said. Many losses resulted from retirements.
DHEC’s program has been in an uproar for several years after an ombudsman with little experience was hired to direct changes. DHEC also has been under scrutiny for several deaths at the homes, including one in Laurens County, where a woman died after sitting outside in scorching heat this past spring.
Darwin said state lawmakers could have helped last spring had they approved an increase — to $20 from $10 per bed over three years — in state fees paid by the homes’ owners.
– Sammy Fretwell and Noelle Phillips