During his 15 months managing four group homes run by Evershine Residential Services Inc., Dennis Waters saw inspectors from the Department of Human Resources visit once. "We knew they were coming," he said. "It wasn't a surprise."
The notice gave Evershine time, current and former employees said, to alter children's medical records, scrub kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms, make repairs and generally prepare the houses to pass inspections.
But the Department of Human Resources, which licenses most group homes for children, defended the practice of giving notice. Not all inspections are done this way, officials said. And despite what Evershine workers told The Sun, the department believes that homes can't deceive inspectors.
"You cannot clean up personnel files or children's files, no matter whether you make announced or unannounced visits," said Grace Turner, a senior DHR licensing official until her recent death. "You either have it or you don't."
Bud Nocar, a DHR inspector for a decade until retiring in 2003, said he would give up to a week's notice.
"Sometimes I would even tell them what records I would pull," he said. "The reason I would do that was, if they were going to be pulling records, they would be pulling their best records, so if I saw something missing, I knew it was a systemic" problem.
The DHR says it does inspections at least twice a year, though agency records indicate that those may be delayed by months, sometimes longer.
The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene lags, too, acknowledging that it takes 18 months to do what should be annual inspections of homes under its authority.
The health department says its inspectors never give notice.
They can't "fudge their records" if the inspection is unannounced, said William Dorrill, a top health department official.
"We walk in and get a snapshot of what it's really like," said Carol Benner, Dorrill's boss, who oversees the health department's inspections office.
When inspectors were coming to Evershine, Jacqueline Jenkins, a former counselor and secretary, said the executive director told her to initial children's medication records whether they'd taken the medicine or not.
"He was, like, 'Just sign it,'" recalled Jenkins, who worked for the company about five years ago.
Kim Branch, an Evershine counselor from 1999 until she was fired in 2004, also recalled being put on notice by a supervisor. "Straighten up the house," her boss said. "Licensing is coming."
Joseph K. Skariah, the executive director, walked through the houses before inspectors did to make sure they were in good condition, said Lonnie Walker, a counselor in 2002 and 2003. And Skariah moved children to other houses or dispatched them on activities elsewhere.
"The inspectors don't know what's really going on because the kids are not in the unit," Walker said.
Skariah and other Evershine officials denied moving the youths out of houses and doctoring files, but they acknowledged alerting staff.
"We put out the word," said Gregory A. Beatty, who was the nursing director until leaving Dec. 31. "Everybody wants to put on the best face possible."
In February, DHR inspectors gave at least a week's notice, employees said, before reviewing paperwork in the main office.
Despite the warning, inspectors found faulty recordkeeping:
Personnel files lacked documentation of background checks, and children's files lacked documentation of plans for medical and other services.