Deaths of Developmentally Disabled Should be More Thoroughly Investigated

About four years ago I had a very interesting case involving the death of a developmentally disabled adult in a San Bernardino care facility. In my case, the thirty-year old severely disabled man was found barely breathing on the floor next to his bed just after midnight. Medics were called, and tried to sustain his life, but sadly the man died. Staff and the family presumed it was a heart attack, since the decedent was very obese and had a history of some heart problems.

An autopsy, however, showed a different case of death. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, finding that the man died from blunt force trauma to his abdomen. The next question for use was Who did it?

Through the discovery process in a lawsuit we filed against the facility, we believed the death was caused by either a disgruntled employee, who was tired and angry at the resident for the demands he made on staff time, or an autistic room mate (who could not speak), who accidentally kicked the decedent in an act of self-defense. The case settled before trial, so those questions were never fully answered.

Today, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that states should more thoroughly investigate the deaths of developmentally disabled people who are receiving community based care. The GAO found that the manner in which deaths were investigated varied widely from state to state, and many investigations were inadequate to determine if the deaths were the result of poor quality of care. To provide adequate safeguards, the GAO is instructing Medicare to put more pressure on states to investigate all deaths of DD individuals, regardless of the suspected cause. The complete report can be found here.

It’s worth mentioning that California’s elder abuse laws apply equally to “dependent adults” which is any individual between the age of 18 and 64 who is in some type of custodial care. Frequently that includes developmentally disabled adults.