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Systematically Disabled 

California spends millions helping the mentally retarded live independently. But who protects them from being ripped off?

Wednesday, Sep 6 2006
Brandy Rigsby, a Sonoma County 26-year-old who used to bounce from job to job caring for the elderly and disabled, has lost the easy ebullience she's been known for. Her wide, bronze face, which friends, family, and co-workers say is usually prone to laughter, stays expressionless, except during moments when she makes a point. Then she breaks into tears and bows her head, before looking back up and resuming her composure.

Rigsby is in the Sonoma County Jail, having been arrested on charges of burglary and identity theft for allegedly using someone's credit card without their permission. The friend is the latest in a litany of people who have wrongfully accused her of theft, Rigsby says. "She was my friend and I was doing some shopping for her," Rigsby explains.

Once her Sonoma charges are adjudicated, Rigsby faces a warrant in San Francisco alleging she obtained the ATM card of an elderly client last year, and then used it to steal more than $500. That, too, was a misunderstanding. The woman had given Rigsby permission to use the card, she says. "I just didn't expect her to flip out on me," Rigsby says.

Additionally, Rigsby has been accused — by former friends, a former co-worker, and by a blind, mentally disabled man she used to take care of — of abusing her former position as a care provider for the mentally disabled by inappropriately taking money from her clients. While acknowledging she worked with these supposed victims, Rigsby denies the accusations. And she has not been charged with any crime related to accusations of stealing from mentally disabled clients.

It's prudent to leave open the likelihood that Rigsby is innocent of the theft charge, and the elder financial abuse charges in San Francisco, because she has not been convicted in a court. And there's reason to be skeptical of the accusations that she stole from retarded clients.

But even if Rigsby is telling the truth, her story is important because it opens a window into the world of private contractors that take care of mentally retarded people who chose to live on their own.

In obtaining low-paid work caring for retarded people two years ago, Rigsby apparently stumbled upon a little-known universe where the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars for services to the mentally retarded, then does an insufficient job monitoring the private contractors who actually take care of these relatively helpless people.

Regardless of what Rigsby did or didn't do, this situation appears ripe for abuse.

Retarded people are largely invisible to "normals." Also out of sight is a private industry that uses tax money to carry out state law mandating that the disabled should be given an opportunity to live as independently as possible.

This is a world where underregulated private companies employ people to go into the homes of retarded people to help them pay bills and perform other household tasks. A job hunter taking one of these low-paying posts encounters a world of people who live alone and are eager for companionship with people from the "normal" world that excludes them, and may not complain to authorities when something goes wrong.

"We don't get many calls from consumers," acknowledges Bob Phillips, director of the Area IV Developmental Disabilities Board, which is the Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties' division of the state agency set up to monitor mentally retarded Californians.

Despite these disabled people's vulnerability to abuse, there appears to be no direct, systematic government regulation of the private companies and individuals who take care of retarded people living on their own.

Rigsby, for example, was employed during 2004 by the private firm Lighthouse Living Services Inc., which accepts taxpayer money to send caretakers to the homes of retarded and other disabled people living alone. Unlike other businesses that provide care for people unfit to fend for themselves, such as adult care homes and preschools, there's no way for guardians and other members of the public to monitor complaints against these types of businesses.

Rather than being regulated by the government, companies such as Lighthouse are "are monitored by the agency that pays them," says Phillips.

However, these paymasters are not set up as a state regulator in the sense of, by way of example, California's Community Care Licensing division, which evaluates complaints about homes for the disabled and elderly.

Instead, the agencies Phillips cites are actually private, nonprofit corporations, dubbed "regional centers," which have the dual responsibilities of funneling state money to contractors who care for retarded people, and checking in periodically on the retarded "consumers" who receive the services. In the event a complaint arises, regional center personnel have the option of ceasing to do business with the provider, contacting the Developmental Disabilities Board, or in unusual cases, informing law enforcement or adult protective services.

There is no official way, however, for a guardian or a member of the public to obtain information about possible complaints against a company such as Lighthouse. It's not even clear whether the "regional centers" systematically keep track of complaints for their own private use.

The North Bay Regional Center, the private, nonprofit corporation that in 2004 reported spending more than $100 million in government money to purchase services for the disabled in the area where Rigsby worked, regards as "confidential" any information it might collect on a particular provider, says Alfonso Carmona, director of client services.

Brandy Rigsby says she began working with the developmentally disabled several years ago when she landed in Sonoma County looking for work.

At Lighthouse, Rigsby worked as an independent living skills trainer, helping disabled clients shop and perform household tasks on their own.

"She was taking care of developmentally disabled people, and she said she left because of some false thing they accused her of. Then I heard that she was getting them to give her money," said a person close to Rigsby's family who didn't want to be identified. "She took care of a girl named Nanny, who was 30 and quite retarded. She enjoyed her job. She liked taking care of them. I would say that in her mind she justified taking money from clients. When you justify something, you really start believing it."

Former co-worker Kathy Holden said she first met Rigsby at a birthday party that was being thrown for her.

"One day I walked into the office, and there were balloons, happy birthday balloons, and I said, 'wow, who bought you all that?' And [Brandy] said, 'Oh, Nanny bought them for me.' Nanny was very low functioning. I couldn't even talk to her... She didn't know what planet she was on. She didn't even know Brandy had brought her from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. It was hard for me to believe it that Nanny authorized using her money to throw a birthday party for Brandy."

Rigsby says she had a warm relationship with Nanny, whose full name she says is Nancy Hahn. It would have been impossible to buy things for herself using Hahn's money because Hahn was too vigilant, Rigsby said. "If she didn't get her French fries from McDonalds every week, you'd know about it," Rigsby said.

Another Rigsby client, Gary Fairburn, was a formerly homeless Petaluma man. Rigsby helped teach him to live independently. And Rigsby's mother took care of Fairburn's household tasks as a government-subsidized in-home supportive services worker. Fairburn claimed someone stole money from him. Rigsby acknowledges there were theft accusations, but says she had nothing to do with the incident. "As soon as my mother became his IHSS worker, I stopped working with him," Rigsby says, explaining it was her supervisor who stole from Fairburn.

Lighthouse's human resources director would not comment.

During the fall of 2004, Lighthouse assigned Rigsby to care for Bill Gillespie, 42, a mildly retarded and blind Santa Rosa man.

"She helped with bills, banking, shopping and stuff, making doctor's appointments and stuff," Gillespie says.

Duing a month-long period during which he went away to learn how to use a seeing-eye dog, Rigsby allowed one of her friends to live in his apartment, Gillespie says. "My landlord almost kicked me out because of that."

Rigsby asked Gillespie for a $700 loan, which she never paid back, Gillespie says. He complained to Lighthouse.

But "they didn't believe me," Gillespie says. "They said I was trying to cause trouble. But it's not a lie. It's the truth."

Holden, Rigsby's former co-worker, says she worked as Gillespie's independent living assistant this year. Holden says she believes Gillespie's version of events.

"The thing with Bill, it breaks my heart, because he's a very caring man," says Holden. "Brandy told him she was going to be kicked out of her apartment if she didn't get $700. He believed he was going to get the $700 back. A year later, he asked for the money. She said she was going to come and take him out to dinner and give him the money. She never called back. She never showed up. Nothing. To see his goodness, to see him just exploited as a natural resource for Brandy's use — it's almost like she dehumanized him."

Rigsby tells me during our jailhouse interview that Gillespie made the entire story up. "That's why I want to get out of this business: Because the Bill Gillespies of the world and the Gary Fairbankses of the world are going to make up things about you," Rigsby says.

Rigsby might remain free to live and work as she pleased had she not crossed the path of Kathy Brown, 63, a legally blind, wheelchair-bound former shopkeeper living in the Richmond District.

"[Rigsby] was taking care of retarded people and disabled people," said Brown's neighbor, Gloria Jimenez, who had been friends with Rigsby and recommended that she work for Brown. "She was really nice. But she's a very good con artist. She could talk her way out of your dentures."

In an April 26, 2006, column "Bank of Indifference," I detailed allegations that Rigsby had taken an ATM card from Brown, then racked up $700 in unauthorized charges.

Brown is not developmentally disabled. And she's not one to refrain from calling authorities when she feels wronged.

So Rigsby will likely face a judge in San Francisco on charges of elder financial abuse. But not before a court in Santa Rosa hears a prosecutors' charge that last month Rigsby used another person's bankcard without permission.

It may never be possible to know whether Rigsby inappropriately took money from developmentally disabled clients.

It does seem, however, that California hands out hundreds of millions of dollars every year with the aim of helping mentally disabled people live independent, dignified lives. Yet the state leaves in place a system where it's theoretically possible for low-paid care workers to take advantage of the disabled in a most undignified way.

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Matt Smith


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