Seaport Manor: A Post-Mortem
(Column: Ask the Attorney)
Lessons for the future
Jeanette Zelhof, Esq.
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By the time this article is printed, Seaport Manor Home for Adults will no longer exist as an adult home. On March 19, 2002, Seaport management announced to 313 residents of the home that it was closing its doors. The facility was ultimately closed on February 28, 2003.

Located in Canarsie, Brooklyn, Seaport Manor was one of the largest adult homes in the New York City area, with 346 beds. For more than a decade its operators subjected residents to a life of squalor. The home was plagued with decrepit rooms, broken furniture and fixtures, and rampant rodent infestation. Filthy, unkempt residents wandered around the facility aimlessly as staff ignored them. Abysmal medication management at Seaport placed residents at grave risk of harm and unnecessary hospitalizations. Residents did not receive monies to which they were entitled; their mail was routinely opened and confiscated.

The New York State Department of Health (DOH) repeatedly found that the operators of the home were failing to meet minimum standards of New York State Department of Social Services ("DSS") regulations regarding resident funds and valuables, resident services, food service and environmental standards. DOH repeatedly reported a poor physical environment, poor resident supervision and services, and lack of follow through in correcting continuing violations. Moreover DOH found that there were continuing deficiencies in maintenance throughout the facility that were systemic and indicated a breakdown in the maintenance operation at Seaport.

Given this long history of egregious violations of Social Services Laws and regulations, one might say the closure is a good thing. Indeed, it is good that DOH finally focused on the home, and it is good that the operators of Seaport Manor are no longer entrusted with the care of its residents. However, the process by which Seaport Manor closed and the questionable future of the Seaport property warrant review.

The Closure Process

DOH was rightly concerned about the appalling conditions in the home. A review of the charges brought by DOH in its administrative proceeding against the operators reveals that, had the State sustained all its claims, the Seaport operators could have been liable for close to half a million dollars in fines. However, before the administrative case was concluded, the State entered into a stipulation, dated March 7, 2002, with the Seaport operators in which the operators were permitted to surrender their license to operate the home and transfer the 313 residents to other facilities, in consideration of a mere $20,000 in fines. In addition, the State's stipulation did not include provisions limiting what the operators could do with the property after they had transferred the residents. These operators, responsible for allowing deplorable conditions to exist year after year, may be able to re-open the premises for whatever type of business they choose. Word has it that the operators plan to sub-lease the premises to another entity to run as a shelter or some other type of facility, once again funded by public monies, from which they will profit greatly.

In response to this flawed stipulation, on May 22, 2002, residents of Seaport Manor, represented by MFY Legal Services, Inc., filed suit against both the Seaport operators and DOH arguing, among other things, that the decision to close the home and impose a mere $20,000 in fines was arbitrary and capricious. We argued that a better solution was to move for the appointment of a receiver to operate the home pending the closure of the home or until a new responsible operator could be found, and that the operators of the home should be liable to the residents for damages for their negligent operation of the home. DOH responded by, in fact, moving for the appointment of a receiver. Medisys Health Systems, Inc. was appointed on June 10, 2002 to run the home pending the closure to ensure the health and safety of the residents as well as supervise the transfer of the residents to other facilities.

Following on the heels of the MFY litigation, in January 2003, the New York State Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the operators of Seaport, seeking, among other things, damages for the residents, civil penalties for violations of state regulations, and an injunction barring the respondents from operating adult care facilities or other regulated entities. The future of the property, however, is still unknown. At the time of this writing there were no legal impediments to the operators' use of the home for another venture.

Lessons for the Future

The State's enforcement of laws protecting residents of adult homes must be swift and strong. From 1992 through 2001 DOH issued eleven inspection reports documenting numerous violations endangering the health, safety and welfare of Seaport residents. While inspection after inspection recommended enforcement activities against the Seaport operators for these dangerous conditions, it took almost nine years for the State to begin enforcement proceedings. During that time, according to The New York Times, there were at least 79 deaths at the home.

A better course of action by the State would have been to institute enforcement proceedings years ago, and to have sought a receiver to run the facility at that time - before conditions deteriorated to such a point. It is important to note that if residents had legal standing to move for the appointment of a receiver on their own, they would have done so long before. Unfortunately, as the law currently stands, only the Attorney General can do so, and only at the request of DOH.

Residents must be empowered to bring such proceedings. After all, who best knows the horrendous conditions of a particular adult home, and the misery it causes, than a person residing in such conditions? The statute should be amended to provide this right of action.

In addition, during the course of the enforcement proceedings, DOH should have used its leverage of the threat of massive fines to pressure the operators into ceding control of the premises to a non-profit operator with the ability to convert the building into supportive housing. In the case of Seaport, due to the paucity of better alternatives, most residents were simply transferred to other adult homes, some of which were little better than the facility they left behind.

The State has recently promised to create thousands of new beds for mentally disabled adult home residents that are integrated into the community. The State must keep this promise-and keep it sooner rather than later. Most adult homes are primarily profit-making facilities whose operators lack expertise and background in mental health issues. Mental health services, medication practices, and case management tend to be sub-standard if not, in some cases, dangerous. Better alternatives such as supportive apartments integrated into the community have been shown to improve the quality of life for disabled individuals, offering better services more appropriately tailored to the actual needs of such persons. As adult homes close as a byproduct of State enforcement, the State must not continue to re-shuffle residents to other adult homes. The State must ensure that services are in place to transition residents into community settings. And the State must ensure that there are enough supportive housing options for adult home residents to exercise choice in where and how they want to live.
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