Local News

Assisted-Living Facility Faces Questions After Resident Wanders Off, Dies

Posted April 27, 2004

— People who put a loved one in an assisted-living facility expect them to be cared for and looked after, but that did not happen for one family.

An autopsy was conducted Monday to determine what killed Troy Stephens, who wandered away from an assisted-living facility in Garner last week. His body was found over the weekend in Lake Benson.

It was not the first time Stephens had escaped from Meadows of Garner, a facility with a history of problems and four owners in the last five years.

Although the state said ownership changes are common, a spokesperson said four owners in five years is unusual. It is also one reason that investigators say the adult-care industry is tough to regulate.

Since 1999, the adult-care facility where Stephens lived has faced fines and suspended admissions. But as of August 2003, it has a new owner, a new name and -- according to a director with the state's Health and Human Services -- a new record.

"The current history is the new owner's history," said Jim Upchurch Jr., chief of the Adult Care Licensure section of the

Department of Health and Human Services.

"We want them doing things correctly . . . We want compliance."

The investigation into Stephens' disappearance and death puts the new owner in the spotlight. Stephens, 53, was allowed to sign out and come and go as he pleased from Meadows of Garner, but the owners said they did not know he had disappeared before.

Advocates wrestle with the question about how should the state continue to investigate past problems when a facility changes hands?

"It makes it difficult to track problems in facilities," Upchurch said.

Adult care also is a very broad term. Residents include the mentally ill and those with health- and age-related disabilities.

"It's a broad category, really," said Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-North Carolina, a member of the state legislature's

Aging Study Commission.

"We need to look at this further."

The Aging Study Commission is preparing a list of recommendations that include studying the various adult-care populations. With 1,400 facilities state-wide, the industry is growing in size.

"If you look at the demographics in North Carolina, we have a very large population of Seniors," Weiss said. "And it's growing astronomically."

Weiss said she would like to see more information for consumers and more-thorough criminal background checks for some workers in assisted living.

Lawmakers are also concerned about a possible loophole in the system that could allow a current facility owner to just change names and wipe the slate clean. The state said there is no evidence that happened in Stephens' case.

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