Someone to Watch Over Me 

Summit Medical Center sent patients to an unlicensed residential-care home even though they knew it was an illegal operation.

In the days following New Year's 2000, while most people were recuperating from their millennium hangovers, Dick Pland was dealing with a different type of headache. His 73-year-old brother, Jim, was being discharged from Oakland's Summit Medical Center after surviving a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. Dick now needed to find a home for his ailing brother, a cantankerous alcoholic who drank himself to sleep and screamed racial epithets loud enough for the whole block to hear.

Shortly before his brother was due to leave the hospital, Dick met with Summit discharge planner Linda Tschappat, a registered nurse in charge of devising a post-hospitalization care plan for Jim. One of the most pivotal duties of discharge planners such as Tschappat is to find a nursing home or a board-and-care home for patients who continue to need supervision and care after they leave the hospital.

When the subject of a nursing home came up, Pland recalled that Tschappat showed him a booklet listing dozens of nearby nursing and residential-care homes. Dick recognized one of the facilities: McClure Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Oakland, where his 100-year-old mother, Louise, lived. As for the rest of the sites, Pland had no clue about them, since he lived in the Sierra Nevada hamlet of Jamestown, where he served on the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.

So Pland asked the hospital's discharge planner to recommend a home that fit the needs of his loner brother. "I thought because of my brother's circumstances -- he had some mental problems as well as physical -- then it should be some small facility where there aren't five hundred people stacked in, but a small, neighborhood-type facility," Pland said. As he recalls, Summit's Tschappat suggested there was a small place nearby, on Randwick Avenue in Oakland, which might suit his brother's needs. It conveniently served only a handful of patients and was run by a young gentleman named Van Williams.

Dick Pland drove over to 42 Randwick Avenue to check out "Van's Home." There were no signs anywhere differentiating the Victorian structure from all the block's other vintage houses. Williams greeted Pland at the door and showed him a room where his brother could stay for just $1,000 a month. The place looked clean, the furniture new. Williams demonstrated how the doors didn't open without a key, so the elderly clients wouldn't leave and wander the streets unsupervised. The caretaker also assured Pland that he would take Jim to his doctor appointments. Pland liked what he saw and arranged to have Williams take care of his brother. Pland's impression was that Williams was a nice and respectful young man.

What Pland wasn't told was that Exzadrian Van Williams was a career criminal on federal probation, with a history of ripping off the elderly. Nearly two years later, the 29-year-old con man faces twelve years in state prison for stealing approximately $1 million of assets from elderly people, including the Rockridge home belonging to Pland's mother.

Not on trial, however, are Williams' unindicted co-conspirators: the hospitals and social workers who funneled clients to a con man with a rap sheet going back to the age of ten. Summit Medical Center officials sent patients to Van's Home even though they knew it was an illegal operation. Negligence of this kind is rendering impotent new California laws designed to protect the elderly from predators such as the man known as Van Williams. The people who pay for this dereliction are innocent and vulnerable senior citizens such as Louise Pland.

Unfortunately, it's all too common.

On paper, the theft of Louise Pland's home never should have happened. By the mid-'90s, state legislators were hearing horror stories about their elderly constituents being snookered by crooked telemarketers and health-care assistants. Lawmakers realized that abuse of the elderly was a probable growth industry. After all, Census officials predict that within 20 years California's population of people 65 and older will double to 7.4 million. Meanwhile, the attorney general estimates that there are 225,000 cases of elder abuse in California each year. And a 1996 federal study suggests that for every case reported, five go unreported.

So in July 1998, the state started requiring people who take care of the elderly to submit fingerprints in order to conduct a criminal background search when they apply for certification. If the computer pulls up prior convictions for anything from theft to assault, licensing officials deny the application. Two years ago, state lawmakers even extended the fingerprinting requirements to janitors and other maintenance workers who have any contact with clients at nursing homes.

These safeguards were deemed necessary because elder-care providers hadn't always bothered to ensure that they weren't letting criminals oversee vulnerable clients. For instance, earlier this year the attorney general's office dismantled a bogus nursing registry, Caring Nurses, after discovering that the service had placed uncertified caregivers in a dozen nursing homes in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Placer, and Nevada counties. Several of the fake nursing assistants had criminal records that should have prevented them from getting certified. Among their prior exploits: grand theft, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, burglary, vehicle theft, and drug dealing. Although state officials say nursing homes are responsible for making sure that hired caregivers are properly trained and certified, none of the twelve nursing homes using Caring Nurses bothered to verify that they were hiring licensed, noncriminal health workers.

The case revealed a major breakdown in California's safeguards against elder abuse. Overly trusting care providers could render the state's background checks meaningless.

In the case of Williams, one simple phone call by any of the institutions that sent him clients could have saved the Pland family the grief it is suffering today. Prosecutors say Williams reapplied for his nursing certificate after he was released on probation in June 1998 from a Colorado federal prison -- a sentence stemming from an earlier conviction for credit card fraud and his ensuing escape from an Oakland halfway house. Despite his criminal background, Williams actually was an experienced nursing assistant. Following in the footsteps of his grandmother, Lillie, he became a certified nursing assistant in 1989 after completing 193 hours of study at Berkeley Adult School. Before being sent to federal prison, he worked for a variety of Bay Area health-care providers, including the Stat Nursing and Care Point nursing registries, and hospitals such as Gladman Psychiatric Health Facility in Oakland and St. Luke's in San Francisco.

Regulators from the Department of Health Services refused to certify Williams because his fingerprints pulled up his previous state felony convictions for grand theft, forgery, and receiving stolen property. In spite of this setback, two weeks later Williams filed a fictitious business name statement with the county recorder establishing the moniker of his new residential-care facility, Van's Home. According to Deputy District Attorney Laurinda Ochoa, Williams got the money to buy the property from a dying 89-year-old man named Lloyd Lafleur, who gave Williams power of attorney over his finances while incoherent shortly before his death in 1999.

It wasn't the first time Williams had ripped off an old person during his extensive criminal career. At age 14, police busted him after he tried to cash a $2,000 check he had stolen from the mailbox of an elderly neighbor. And while working in 1990 at Care Point, Williams stole an elderly patient's credit card and went on a $4,000 spending spree.

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