TRAVERSE CITY —Northern Lakes Community Mental Health board members won’t discipline their top official despite the state’s recent finding that he put profoundly disabled adults at risk on public buses.
And board members questioned why state officials reversed an earlier decision that found Gregory Paffhouse innocent of wrongdoing.
Paffhouse, Northern Lakes’ chief executive officer, at a special board meeting on Thursday, read from a three-page document that outlined actions he and his staff took to protect the agency’s severely disabled bus riders following an August 2011 bus assault. That’s when a Northern Lakes client repeatedly beat and choked another client during a 90-minute bus ride.
“Northern Lakes immediately responded to the Aug. 22, 2011 incident,” Paffhouse said.
The assailant immediately was taken off the bus, and the victim did not require medical attention. Paffhouse spoke in his defense at Thursday’s meeting called to discuss a state report that recommended he be disciplined.
Paffhouse said he learned of the August incident on Oct. 25. His staff subsequently met several times in November to determine what other clients were vulnerable so their service plans could be changed to include bus supervision. They also discussed finding alternative transportation and their intent to use Medicaid funding to pay for aides.
Northern Lakes CMH pays the Bay Area Transportation Authority to transport developmentally disabled clients to and from training and work sites. The August beating triggered a widespread investigation that found 67 vulnerable clients rode buses without supervision, despite diagnoses ranging from profound cognitive impairment, serious medical conditions, and mental illness, including some riders with a known history of violent behavior.
A Northern Lakes investigation revealed about two dozen incidents of assaults, self-harm, and inappropriate sexual behavior over 18 months on contracted BATA buses.
Paffhouse said he strongly disagrees with the state’s newest conclusions that place him at fault for putting clients at risk of harm. The Feb. 20 state report said Paffhouse failed to follow the “standard of care” when informed of the urgent need for staff supervision on buses.
“There is no evidence that any action occurred until 11/29/2011, when (state officials) became involved,” the state investigator wrote.
Paffhouse contends no additional facts were revealed since Sept. 7, when the state declared he was not at-fault. There also was no resulting change in Northern Lakes’ policy. That led him to wonder about the “motivations and timing associated with it.”
The board met in closed session with Grand Rapids attorney Donald Lawless. Afterward, they unanimously voted to send Paffhouse’s timeline of action along with back-up documents to the state Department of Community Mental Health for examination and reconsideration.
A Northern Lakes client and former attorney who attended the meeting voiced disappointment at the board’s decision.
“They are just stalling for time instead of settling the whole thing and getting it done and over with,” said Jacqueline Nagy, who chairs a board advisory committee. “Again and again these people are being violated and their case is not being taken seriously.”
Bill Rossbach, stepfather of Michael Hauler, a Northern Lakes client, filed allegations that Paffhouse did not sufficiently reprimand employees who allegedly obstructed the investigation and delayed effective action that would have protected clients.
The state investigator initially found that there was no “standard of care” that applies to a CEO when informed of an investigation. In other words, Paffhouse could not be held responsible for hands-on intervention; it was the staff’s responsibility to protect Northern Lakes clients. Rossbach argued in his appeal that the standard of care does apply to a CEO. He cited state law and Northern Lakes own board policy.
“It seems to me that the answer is staring at them in their face, so what are they up to?” he asked. “The board has no statutory right to appeal and why would they want one?”
Rossbach said caseworkers already knew which clients required supervision because it was in their service plans. His stepson, Michael Hauler, for example, was once found wandering in the parking lot at Grand Traverse Industries, where he attended a program.
“He had escaped and needed more supervision,” he said. “The case managers knew all that stuff. It was nothing more than Paffhouse turning to his operations manager and saying, ‘Get your case managers on the phone and give me the names of all those who have vulnerabilities.’ We’re talking a few minutes of effort here.”
The board previously reprimanded Paffhouse for failing to adequately discipline staff workers in the bus case.
A former Northern Lakes client advocate is suing the agency and contends Paffhouse fired him after he unearthed a pattern of employee failures to protect the agency’s disabled clients.