A 10-year-old disabled foster child died last week while under the care of a group home in Anne Arundel County that Maryland health regulators were in the process of closing down, state Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein confirmed Thursday.
Regulators, he said, are conducting investigations into the July 2 death at the Laurel-area home operated by LifeLine Inc., a state contractor that had provided round-the-clock care for such children — and that was recently warned it would lose its license for having inadequate staff to meet the "health and safety needs of each child" and other issues.
In the meantime, 10 other youths have been moved from LifeLine's care.
Sharfstein could not specify when the moves took place but said all were completed the day after the boy's death. He did not link the events and said the children were not moved sooner from LifeLine's care because it takes time to find other contractors to provide housing and the necessary medical care.
"Since we identified in 2014 inspections that there have been problems, we've been working to transition the children," he said. "It's fair to say we have felt some urgency ever since we identified the problems. The important thing is that the kids are safe."
But Connie West, who supervised the deceased boy's education plans, said it was odd that the state had been considering moving the children for several weeks before the death and then suddenly decided to move them. "They're thinking, 'Oh, crap, we'd better get them out of there because suppose if another one dies,' " the Millersville woman said.
West said the boy's first name was Damaud but could not share his full name because of confidentiality rules. He breathed through a tracheostomy tube connected to a ventilator and was under a "do not resuscitate" order authorized by social services officials, said West, who was appointed by Anne Arundel County's school system to work with the boy.
"He probably would have passed," West said. "That doesn't mean he would have passed this soon."
County police confirmed the boy's age and date of death but did not release any other details about him.
LifeLine has run into problems with state regulators in recent years. In 2012, the state revoked the company's license to care for disabled adults. The revocation came after two residents died at an Owings Mills facility and the state cited the company for violating standards of care, an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found.
But state officials allowed the company to continue providing care to disabled foster children, saying they had not found similar problems with that program. In September 2013, the state awarded LifeLine a $4.9 million contract to provide services to 13 "medically fragile" children.
Health officials had been monitoring Damaud and the other children in the Laurel-area apartments every week since determining in late May that LifeLine had not employed sufficient staff to address the "health and safety needs of each child," according to an inspection report dated June 20. The report also found that the company had failed to keep another resident "free from abuse, neglect and mistreatment" because it was "unable to manage" the resident's bedsore.
A previous inspection in February identified other problems with feeding residents, changing their diapers and administering their medications.
An inspector with the state health department's Office of Health Care Quality told LifeLine in late May that the agency would recommend that its license be revoked because of those combined findings.
In addition, The Sun found that county police and fire services had been called to LifeLine's apartments for multiple reports of abuse and injury. State regulators said that the company did not disclose those incidents as it is required to do.
LifeLine's chief executive, Theresa Martin, wrote to state officials June 5 that she intended to close her company's program for children on Sept. 30 because state payments did not cover the costs of care. "The care provided the children cannot be simply dollars and cents, yet without adequate funding it is impossible to provide the quality level of service they deserve," she wrote.
She could not be reached for further comment.
West said the state should have formally revoked the company's license regardless of Martin's letter.
West, who has adopted two disabled children who were in LifeLine's care, including a teen who uses a tracheostomy tube, said Damaud could have easily died if his tube became clogged and was not quickly changed. An investigation will determine whether LifeLine was properly staffed to provide Damaud with the proper round-the-clock care, she said.
Sharfstein said investigations by health and social services regulators are standard procedure when someone dies in a group home. The state is not releasing any information about the boy's death until an autopsy is performed and the investigations are completed.
State officials, he said, have moved as quickly as possible to find contractors with the space and the ability to provide care for LifeLine's residents. The state contracts with three other companies to serve children who suffer from cerebral palsy, blindness and deafness, and other issues that require constant care.
Nancy Kay Blackwell, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Baltimore City, said LifeLine has been "sliding down" for some time but that Damaud's death is likely not an indication of its problems. Such children, she said, "do not have very long life spans."
"That's not uncommon" for a child to die, Blackwell said. "Even though a child dies, it doesn't mean something horrible has happened."
Moving children in one day is possible if state officials had been working for the past month on arranging a new home, she said. A company like Landover-based Second Family can quickly open spaces for new children because of its size. Second Family is the state's largest contractor for providing nursing care to children with disabilities. In September, the Department of Human Resources awarded the company a $26 million contract to provide 40 beds through 2015.
"They're the best in Maryland," Blackwell said. "It's easy for them to open a home. They have a lot spaces. It's easy for them to accommodate new kids quickly."