Published: March 7, 2017

Poverty wages and 90% turnover for Direct Support Providers put Oregonians with disabilities at risk

Group home workers and people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD) gathered at the Capitol on March 7 to testify about the looming crisis in Oregon group homes. SEIU Local 503 released a report today titled “Broken Promises: Are Oregon Group Homes Failing People with Developmental Disabilities?” that outlines major problems in the industry and proposes policy solutions. The House Human Services Committee heard testimony on HB2684 and HB2685, which propose solutions to problems described in the report.

Abuse and neglect unreported and unpunished

The Department of Human Services’ Office of Developmental Disability Services (ODDS) tracks hundreds of reports of abuse in group homes every year, including restraint and seclusion, sexual assault, and physical abuse resulting in serious injuries. Many of the substantiated abuse reports are categorized as neglect—a direct consequence of chronic short staffing driven by poverty wages for Direct Support Providers. Neglect reports include falls resulting in broken bones, failure to administer medication or administering the wrong medication, and medical neglect leading to seizures, overdose, and in multiple documented cases, death.

71% of all substantiated abuse claims submitted to the Office of Adult Abuse Prevention (OAPPI) between 2010 and 2015 occurred in group homes. Of the 306 cases substantiated in 2015, 41% either received no penalty or the State did not have information on the outcome. HB 2684 proposes stiffer penalties for substantiated abuse and whistleblower protection for frontline workers who report it.

“We need to protect whistleblowers because nobody reports abuse in group homes,” said Beverly Brinster, a former DSP from St. Helens. “If they do they will be fired. Officially, you can’t be fired for reporting, but they can fire you for no reason whatsoever, and it’s an ‘odd coincidence’ that it happens right after you reported something.”

High turnover leads to poor conditions

Average pay in group homes starts just above minimum wage. As a result, group homes have a 90% turnover rate — the highest of any care sector in Oregon. High turnover is especially hard on people with I/DD who live in group homes and form close relationships with the people who provide assistance with activities like bathing and dressing. HB 2684 proposes a wage pass-through to stabilize the workforce by bringing DSP wages in line with industry standards for other care jobs.

“Even when there’s a regular shift change, it can be stressful for the people who live here,” said Ebony Friese, a DSP at a group home in Portland. “When it’s actually new staff coming in, it’s really difficult. It’s the consistency and the routine that makes people feel safe and more comfortable. Imagine if you constantly had to adjust to new people in your life, especially people you rely on for so many personal things.”

Chronic understaffing and neglect

“Understaffing really affects care,” said Debbie Price, a DSP from Portland. Debbie describes the struggle to meet each person’s basic needs when group homes are understaffed: “I’ve had situations where I needed to get someone up and I couldn’t do it alone. I called management and they couldn’t come help me. I did get them up by myself but it took a long time and I nearly missed a medication dose.”

“Many times I am trying to give one client a shower, and for their privacy I am supposed to shut their door, but how can I shut their door when I have two other clients that are 1:1 supervision and I’m the only staff in the house? If another client is trying to get out the front door then I have to pull the first person out of the shower, they are dripping wet and I am trying to wrap a towel around them real quick so I can go chase the other person down the street. It’s not safe for anybody.”

Minimal transparency with public money

Even though I/DD services for the 2,891 Oregonians who live in group homes are almost entirely publicly funded, there is minimum financial disclosure. It’s impossible to verify if public money is being spent as intended. HB 2684 would increase requirements for financial reporting to bring group homes in line with nursing homes.