By Anne Stanton
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Lakes Community Mental Health’s top official failed to immediately protect profoundly impaired clients who ride on public buses, a state investigation found.
Gregory Paffhouse’s month-long delay in the fall of 2011 to respond to complaints of injured clients put other clients at risk and resulted in physical harm, according to a Michigan Department of Community Mental Health finding issued this week.
Paffhouse, Northern Lakes’ chief executive officer, knew as early as October 25, 2011, that impaired clients urgently needed supervision when they rode public buses or required alternative transportation, the report stated.
No evidence exists that Paffhouse took of action until officials from the Department of Human Services interceded on Nov. 29., the report said.
The next day, Northern Lakes’ staff rode the buses and aides were assigned thereafter.
Northern Lakes CMH pays Bay Area Transportation Authority to transport developmentally disabled clients to and from training and work sites.
In August 2011, a profoundly disabled woman, unable to cry out, repeatedly was beaten and choked by another Northern Lakes client during a 90-minute bus ride.
The beating triggered an investigation by Jon Bennett, who worked for Northern Lakes until his firing in October 2012.
Bennett’s job was to advocate for the rights of Northern Lakes clients. He found 67 agency clients rode buses without supervision despite diagnoses ranging from mental retardation, serious medical conditions, and mental illness, including some with a history of violence. There were about two dozen incidents of physical violence, self harm, and inappropriate sexual behavior over 18 months. BATA officials defended their drivers, saying their priority was to drive, not supervise.
Even after the August 2011 incident appeared on Northern Lakes’ radar, several more incidents occurred, one that resulted in physical injury.
Bennett filed a whistle-blower lawsuit that contends he was fired in retaliation for his BATA bus investigation. Paffhouse blamed it on Bennett’s longstanding history of conflicts with staff and adult foster care homes.
“The ability to do our jobs was being compromised and would be increasingly compromised,” Paffhouse told the Record-Eagle in an interview for a previous story.
State and consultant reports last year revealed profound tensions between Bennett and his coworkers, some of whom said Bennett didn’t respect their own rights and feared talking to him about problems. Investigators faulted Paffhouse for not following through on staff complaints and resolving conflicts.
Bennett’s attorney, Jay Zelenock, said the report validates the lawsuit, scheduled for a November trial.
“We are really proud to be representing a client who stood up for what’s right,” Zelenock said.
At a Northern Lakes CMH meeting on Thursday, Bennett’s replacement said she and other staff members are “clicking well together” and working as a team.
“I think we’re on a good path,” said Tracy Andrews, the new ORR director.
Northern Lakes Board President Melissa Fournier said a meeting will be scheduled to discuss the state report.
Bill Rossbach, a guardian who holds Bennett in high regard, filed the original complaint and an appeal for a re-investigation.
He said a question remains: Why were clearly vulnerable people allowed to ride side-by-side with only a driver’s “vague supervision.” His profoundly disabled stepson, Michael Hauler, was among the bus riders.
“Michael can’t talk and there were many like Michael on the buses, and nothing was done,” he said.
This weeks finding was the state’s second decision against Paffhouse. The state also faulted him for inadequately disciplining staff workers in the BATA case. This report recommended an appropriate penalty for Paffhouse, ranging from official reprimand to dismissal.