In death, as in life, city has a say over Eugene Sampson

By Patricia Sullivan, The Washington Post
August 12, 2011

Eugene Sampson’s life was dictated, in many ways, by the rules of the District’s bureaucracy.

He spent almost a half century in Forest Haven, the city’s notorious asylum for the disabled in Laurel. When he moved to the L’Arche group home in Adams Morgan, after Forest Haven was closed, “it was like he won a million-dollar lottery,” said his niece, Linda Goette.

Then in 2006, the city tried to intervene again. Officials ordered Sampson’s eviction because he was the sixth person in a home permitted for five. After public attention, and the intervention of a city council member, the bureaucracy relented.

Sampson, by all accounts a cheerful and gentle spirit who loved animals, dancing, flirting and hanging out with friends, died Thursday of lung cancer, at home in his group home apartment on Ontario Place NW, surrounded by two parakeets, six friends and ­Elvis music, just as he wanted.

Yet the city would step in one final time.

When Sampson died, the hospice worker called the medical examiner and L’Arche program director Barbara Ryan contacted the city’s Department of Disability Services case worker. A homicide detective arrived, as city rules require, to make sure this was not a suspicious death.

As professional and polite as both city employees were, the staff at L’Arche were upset — grieving the loss of an 81-year-old friend who had lived there for 28 years; they didn’t expect to be part of an investigation. Sampson’s body was removed within three hours of his death, and the medical examiner is expected to determine early next week whether a full invasive autopsy is necessary. Another city official has scheduled a review of Sampson’s complete records next week.

Laura N. Nuss, the city’s DDS director, said the actions taken were routine procedures to make sure the death was natural.

“Medical examiners don’t always know if a death is anticipated,” as this one was, she said, and that’s why the police are notified. The city needs to be sure “if there are any records, they are secured so there wasn’t any opportunity to tamper with them.”

The detective who responded was impressed.

“It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Det. Jed Worrell. “It was immaculate, not only by appearance, but in the concern the staff members had for their clients.”

But it’s the rules that bother L’Arche officials, and the sense that the city doesn’t really consider people with intellectual disabilities to have the full rights of any other resident.

“The natural thing would have been to clean the body, sit with it, say some prayers and then call the funeral home,” said John Cook, L’Arche Greater Washington’s executive director. “This is about caring about scandals and not being in The Washington Post. . . . All these investigations about health and safety, it’s about scandal prevention.”

There have been a lot of scandals regarding public care for Washington’s disabled citizens. Besides the shuttering of Forest Haven, group homes came under scrutiny in 1999 for failing to protect some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. In 2009, a court threatened to take over the facilities of a group home provider unless improvements were made. This March, a 57th Street group home was closed.

Things have improved, “by little baby steps,” say the leaders at L’Arche, which is considered one of the area’s best community-based nonprofit agencies. But what’s hampering bigger improvements, they say, are the complex and unending regulations that seem to solve little except to provide officials with deniability in case something goes wrong.

“The big change has come because of a change in people under Mayors William and Fenty,” Cook said. “The same is true of direct providers. . . . DDS knows who the bad ones are. Change them, then see what needs to be done.”

“It seems to me many of these rules got created because there are some pretty bad providers out there,” Ryan said. “I think the solution would be to get rid of the bad providers.”

Nuss said in the past few years DDS has increased its training and oversight to identify problems in advance and take action. L’Arche “does a good job,” she said, but everyone has to follow the rules.

“We certainly know who our better providers are and who aren’t. But a provider has a business right to operate and you do have to follow administrative procedures. . . . We use all the tools we have. There definitely has been an increase in our ability to move problem providers out of the system. If they appeal, we take on increased oversight, sometimes seven days a week. Consumers can choose to stay with a problem provider, and some do.”

On Ontario Place, people were still mourning at the two adjoining rowhouses where Sampson lived. Tears came to their eyes as they discussed the man they considered “the patriarch” of their community. The funeral services, planned for next Saturday, have to be moved from his church to the Festival Center on Columbia Road to accommodate his many friends.

“I will remember him as the gentleman — the one who always thinks of how to help people,” said Dorothy Copps, one of the L’Arche leaders. “He wasn’t superficial. He felt very deeply and wanted significant relationships.”

 

Original story can be found at The Washington Post.