Systematically Disabled

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

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.

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