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Mother seeks answers after autistic son was dropped off at a stranger's house

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A Westminster woman has been stymied in her search for answers to why her autistic son was found walking alone on the side of a road and why those responsible for his safety — CHANGE Inc., Flying Colors of Success Inc. and Butler Mobility — failed to inform her of the incident immediately.

Despite the organizations saying changes are being made to ensure a similar incident doesn't happen in the future, Diana Lynch said it is too late for her and her son, John Sollers, a 37-year-old with autism who is largely nonverbal.

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Lynch has decided that it's no longer worthwhile to outsource her son's daily care to Flying Colors and CHANGE, and is beginning the process to bring him home with her for good.

"I'm going to have to give up my job, but I have to do it. I just don't rest well anymore," Lynch said. "This is just — I've lost trust with the home. If they don't tell me about this, and this is major, I don't know what else they haven't told me."

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According to officials from the agencies involved, Sollers was picked up from his day program at CHANGE in Westminster at about 3 p.m. March 27 by the wrong bus, a vehicle operated by Butler Mobility, and dropped off at a stranger's home. A CHANGE employee later found him walking along Old Westminster Pike and stayed with him until staff of the Flying Colors home where he lives then picked Sollers up.

When Lynch picked up Sollers to bring him home for the weekend on the evening of March 27, she said no one at the Flying Colors home said anything to her about her son having gone missing, nor did anyone from CHANGE call her about the incident.

The first indication Lynch had that anything was wrong was when she received a phone call from Anne Waite of Flying Colors on April 1, five days after the incident. Waite oversees the homes Flying Colors operates for its clients.

"She called me to ask if anyone had called me about John," Lynch said. "She was the one that informed me that John was picked up and dropped off at the wrong address."

Lynch said she initially thought something had taken place that day, a Wednesday, but was surprised to learn that the incident had taken place the Friday before — the same day she picked him up for his monthly weekend at her home.

Lynch then called CHANGE and was passed on to Executive Director Rick Glaser.

"He told me that … CHANGE was at fault because nobody was out there with my son," Lynch said. "He said this isn't the first time someone has been left out front with nobody to be there when they got on the bus."

Glaser told the Times it is CHANGE policy to have someone with clients such as Sollers at all times, but on this occasion, he said, "I think they stepped away for a moment."

Glaser said Sollers had been waiting for a bus ride home when a Butler Mobility bus driver saw Sollers and asked him if he was "Juanita," to which Sollers said "yes."

"My son will say 'yes' to anything," because of his autism, Lynch said. "If they asked, 'What is your name?' he would have said 'John.' "

Lynch said Glaser told her that Sollers had been dropped off somewhere in the vicinity of Carroll Hospital Center, presumably at "Juanita's" residence, after which he must have walked toward where he was later found along Old Westminster Pike, not far from his group home on Woodside Drive.

"The only way he could get to Old Westminster Pike is he had to cross [Route] 97. I don't even trust him walking out the front of our house to go anywhere, much less the highway," Lynch said. "I don't know where they dropped him off, if he tried to get into that person's house."

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Glaser confirmed Sollers had been dropped off at the wrong location but did not give a specific address. He said he believes Sollers got on a bus operated by Butler Mobility when he might have been supposed to ride a Carroll Area Transit System bus.

County government signed a contact with Butler Mobility last year to operate Carroll Transit Systems, which took over transportation services for the county from CATS in February.

"It was an unfortunate incident. Fortunately no one got hurt," Glaser said. "Certainly the mother is upset, as we all are that the wrong person got on the wrong bus. We are taking some steps to make sure it doesn't happen again. We will probably get some sort of citation from the state because we were not making sure he got on the right bus."

CHANGE has filed a report of neglect with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a standard procedure any time an incident with a client takes place, Glaser said.

According to DHMH spokesman Christopher Garrett, the report filed by Glaser is not yet public because it is part of an ongoing investigation. It will become public, he said, in the event that the investigation results in a deficiency report. Garrett did not provide a timeline for how long the investigation might take.

DHMH was not able to provide any existing previous deficiency reports concerning either CHANGE or Flying Colors by 5 p.m. Friday, April 17, but Garrett said it is working on the request.

Delayed notification

A CHANGE employee recognized Sollers on the side of Old Westminster Pike while driving home for the day on March 27, Glaser told the Times, and he said this employee contacted Flying Colors and stayed with Sollers until they arrived to pick him up. Glaser did not say who the CHANGE employee was.

Glaser said he could not explain why Lynch was not told about the incident the day it happened but said CHANGE did contact her on March 31. However, Lynch said she did not receive a call from CHANGE.

"It happened on a Friday afternoon. He lives in a group home and what [Lynch] told me was that the people at the group home — she went there at 5 to 5:30 p.m. to pick him up — and they didn't say anything to her then," Glaser said. "We had assumed that the group home would [say something]."

Flying Colors President Mike Hardesty said Waite had reached out to Lynch on April 1 because Flying Colors administrators regularly keep in touch with the family members of clients, but Flying Colors was not involved in the mishap.

"Ms. Lynch's son was under CHANGE's supervision, and he was to be transported by one of their contractors," Hardesty said. "There is probably some blame to go with both those organizations. I'm not trying to give anybody a black eye or throw anybody under the bus. I am happy that Ms. Lynch's son got home safely and am confident that there won't be any lapses like this ever again."

Hardesty said the situation was made more complicated because Sollers was picked up by the wrong bus service, but he could not speak to the exact details of that afternoon because he was not present to witness the events.

Silent witness

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No one was there to see what happened on March 27 except Sollers, who cannot explain what happened, and the Butler Mobility bus driver.

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According to Lynch, a Butler Mobility employee, Michael Goodman, had confirmed to her many of the details that Glaser had mentioned. But when contacted by the Times for comment, Goodman said all inquiries concerning the incident would be handled by Carroll County Government Administrator Roberta Windham.

After more than a week of contradictory statements from Windham and representatives of Butler Mobility about who was responsible for speaking to the media in connection with the incident, William Rosenberg, chief operating officer of Butler Medical Transport — of which Butler Mobility is a division — issued a statement by email in which he denied the account of the events of March 27 as given by Lynch, Glaser and Hardesty.

"The allegations … did not happen as you described them, and further investigation by all parties involved have revealed such," Rosenberg wrote in an emailed statement. "Carroll Transit System went above and beyond in this alleged incident to ensure all riders' safety and security was met, and to correct any issues that were created even if created by a third party."

Rosenberg declined to provide an alternative narrative about what happened to Sollers on March 27 or to provide any details concerning any changes that might have been made to ensure similar incidents do not occur in the future.

Coming changes

Hardesty said that he has been communicating with both Butler and CHANGE concerning modifications that could be made to make transportation safer for Flying Colors clients.

"We want our clients to be safe and make sure all parties are communicating, and hopefully there will be an adequate level of supervision over it," Hardesty said. "I've discussed my concerns with Rick from CHANGE and I talked with the folks at Butler … I think Butler is going through this learning curve right now, and I have offered to educate their staff on our population of individuals with intellectual disabilities since they have different needs than folks in the general population and have different communication strengths and weaknesses, and I am sure some of this was involved."

At CHANGE, Glaser said new efforts are being made to ensure that all clients are supervised and guided by CHANGE staff when being picked up by transit services.

"The primary thing is we are making sure that there is a staff person who is watching each person get on the bus and is verifying with the driver that they are there to pick up [that] person," Glaser said. "We are also working to get some kind of ID card for each individual that will perhaps have their information on it. A lot of people already have ID cards, the state-issued ones, and we are trying to get others."

Lingering questions

Lynch said that although she appreciated Glaser apologizing to her over the phone, she still feels unsatisfied with the answers she has received from all the organizations involved in the incident concerning not just what happened, but what the organizations — and she — can do about it.

As someone who works one-on-one with autistic children — she is an in-home behavioral technician and spent 10 years with the Department of Social Services as an in-home parental aid — Lynch said she would like to see something in writing explaining what went wrong, who is taking responsibility and what they will do about it.

"The point I want to put across [is] I am not just the mother of an autistic child. I work with them as well and I know the do's and don'ts," she said. "I can't let this rest because I am not only looking out for my son but there are others out there."

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twitter.com/jonkelvey

What is autism?

Autism is a spectrum disorder, with symptoms ranging from difficulty in making eye contact and holding a conversation to delayed or impaired language functions and motor skills.

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