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Agency Says Conditions At Mental Retardation Center 'Stabilizing'

SOMERSET, Ky. (AP) - The state's largest facility for the mentally retarded, harshly criticized in recent years for poor living conditions and patient abuse, has made significant improvements under new management, according to an independent monitor.

The former Communities at Oakwood was taken over by Bluegrass Mental Health/Mental Retardation board, a regional mental health agency, last fall. The facility is now called Bluegrass Oakwood.

Dr. Nirbhay Singh, appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor the facility, said in a report that since Bluegrass took over operations, it "has made significant gains in stabilizing the facility."

In previous reports, Singh had described the facility as "severely dysfunctional" and "on the brink of total chaos." Bluegrass President Joseph Toy told The Courier-Journal that Singh's recent findings were encouraging. "I thought it was extraordinarily favorable," Toy said.
"We've really turned the corner."

About 230 patients live at the facility in Somerset, about 75 miles south of Lexington.

Singh's report, filed in federal court in Lexington in June, was presented Wednesday to the joint legislative Health and Welfare Committee, which also has been monitoring conditions at Oakwood. It
is part of ongoing oversight by the Justice Department through a federal consent decree the state entered last year to improve conditions at Oakwood.

Lawmakers, who have heard years of testimony about abuse of residents and other problems at Oakwood, said they are encouraged.

"I think you are to be commended for the turnaround," committee co-chairman Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, told state and Bluegrass officials at the hearing.

Dr. Claude Farley, a retired Lexington physician whose son lives
at Oakwood, told the committee he has noticed marked improvement in
the treatment of residents and staff morale under Bluegrass.

"There's no doubt about it," he said after the hearing. "It's a totally different institution."

Yet, even under Bluegrass management, the facility has been cited by state regulators for patient abuse and neglect.

Most recently, a staffer left a shoeprint on a patient's face during an incident on June 17, according to a Type A citation - the most serious kind - released in July.

Bluegrass President Joseph Toy said there have been major changes to policies at Oakwood, the immediate firing of staff who mistreat residents or overlook mistreatment.

Before Bluegrass took over, state officials were unable to immediately fire such employees under Kentucky's merit system, which requires a series of steps to protect employees before they are terminated. So most were assigned to other jobs, such as the laundry room, while allegations were investigated.

When Bluegrass took over, the workers became its employees and
subject to its personnel policy, which allows it to fire abusive or
incompetent workers on the spot, Toy said.

--- Information from: The Courier-Journal, www.courier-journal.com

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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