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Herald investigation: Neglected to Death

For more than a decade, Bruce Hall ran his assisted-living facility in Florida’s Panhandle like a prison camp.

He punished his disabled residents by refusing to give them food and drugs. He threatened them with a stick. He doped them with powerful tranquilizers, and when they broke his rules, he beat them — sending at least one to the hospital.

“The conditions in the facility are not fit even for a dog,” one caller told state agents.

When Florida regulators confronted Hall in 2004 over a litany of abuses at his facility in the rolling hills of Washington County, they said he chased them from the premises while railing against government intrusion.

Under state law, regulators could have shut down Sunshine Acres Loving Care or suspended the home’s license, but they did neither. Instead, they ordered the 50-year-old Hall to see a therapist for his anger and to promise not to use “any weapon or object” on his residents — allowing him to keep his doors open for five more years.

In that time, Hall went on to break nearly every provision of Florida’s assisted-living law: He threw a woman to the ground, and forced her to sleep on a box spring for six days after she urinated on her covers. Though the temperature outside reached 100 degrees, he forced his residents to live without air conditioning. And during a critical overnight shift, he fell asleep on the job while a 71-year-old woman with mental illness wandered from her bed, walked out the door and drowned in a nearby pond.

In a state where tens of thousands reside in assisted-living facilities, the case of Hall’s Sunshine Acres represents everything that has gone wrong with homes once considered the pride of Florida.

Created more than a quarter-century ago, ALFs were established in landmark legislation to provide shelter and sweeping protections to some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly and mentally ill.

But a Miami Herald investigation found that the safeguards once hailed as the most progressive in the nation have been ignored in a string of tragedies never before revealed to the public.

Read the investigation by Rob Barry, Michael Sallah and Carol Marbin Miller here.

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