Group home for disabled children struggled to provide adequate care

The recent death of a 10-year-old disabled foster child at an Anne Arundel County group home was just the latest in a series of problems at LifeLine, the state contractor that has been paid millions in taxpayer funds to care for "medically fragile" individuals, a two-month investigation by The Baltimore Sun has found.

Even before Damaud Martin's death on July 2, LifeLine had struggled for years to provide around-the-clock care for its residents — adults and foster children often confined to a bed or wheelchair by paralysis, cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Its founder, Randall Martin Jr., is imprisoned for felony arson, the state disciplined the company for inadequate care after the death of three adult residents, and it is burdened by tax liens and other debts.

Maryland regulators were unaware of many of LifeLine's problems, including police reports alleging neglect, The Sun's investigation showed — raising concerns about state oversight of these group homes. The state has awarded LifeLine $18 million in contracts since 2010 to care for children, despite reports that warned of financial difficulties and inspections that highlighted shortcomings in care.

And it wasn't until July 3 — a day after Damaud died and weeks after the company was warned it would lose its license — that the state finished moving the last children from LifeLine's care.

Connie West, who has adopted two children living at LifeLine, said it defies common sense that two state regulatory agencies would continue to support the company despite all of its problems.

"The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing," said West, whose family now includes a former LifeLine resident named Ray. "It doesn't make any sense to me. The state is just so overburdened by these children that any place that says they'll take them, the state says, 'Great.'"

LifeLine, whose Laurel-area apartments had the capacity for about a dozen children, continued to operate despite these troubles:

In 2010, then-CEO Randall Martin Jr. was charged with setting fire to his former mistress' West Baltimore rowhouse while she and her young son slept inside. The Baltimore County businessman was convicted of arson and other charges and is now serving the second year of a 50-year sentence.

State officials suspended LifeLine's adult-care license in 2011 — and ultimately revoked it — after investigations at the company's other group home, in Owings Mills, found "a pattern of inadequate care of residents resulting in an imminent risk of harm to the health, safety and welfare of the medically frail individuals receiving services." The findings noted deficient care for three residents who had died.

In 2012, LifeLine filed for a reorganization under bankruptcy laws but did not notify state officials. A state audit the following year found the company "fiscally insolvent," yet in June 2013 the state invited the company to bid on a new contract for the care of foster children. That same month, the IRS hit LifeLine with a $1.2 million tax lien that state officials were unaware of.

LifeLine's apartments in the Russett Green area of Laurel were visited a dozen times in 2013 and 2014 by Anne Arundel County police and fire units for reports of abuse and injuries. State officials were not notified of those incidents by LifeLine — despite regulations requiring it to do so.

"This is unnerving," said Nancy Pineles, managing attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the disabled. "This convergence of events is very unusual: A serious felony [by Martin] where human life was in danger, the kind of danger that you wouldn't want this person working with children with disabilities. And the financial problems of the agency are very unusual."

In May, the court-appointed health care guardian for a 19-year-old LifeLine resident filed a complaint about the teen's infected bed sore because he had to be rushed to Laurel Regional Hospital. He was transferred to Johns Hopkins Hospital for three procedures over three weeks, said Maribeth Donohue, the guardian.

Her complaint triggered a state review that found LifeLine had not properly treated the wound and that staffing was inadequate for him and others. A separate review in February had found other problems: LifeLine had failed to properly administer medications and food, and a quadriplegic was left in her urine and feces.

Health regulators told LifeLine — which received nearly $11,000 per month for each child's care — early last month that it was not providing a safe environment for residents and that the state planned to revoke its license. LifeLine's chief executive, Theresa Martin, who is married to Randall Martin's brother, responded in a June 5 letter that she was closing the company's program.

In the letter, she said state payments did not cover the costs of care. "With the many challenges we have faced over the past few years, some far greater than we ever anticipated, LifeLine has persevered. The care provided the children cannot be simply dollars and cents, yet without adequate funding it is impossible to provide the quality level of service they deserve."

She and other company officials declined repeated requests for further comment. Randall Martin, imprisoned at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, did not respond to a written request for an interview.

State regulators from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Human Resources defend their oversight of LifeLine, one of four companies hired by the state to provide 62 beds for foster children with "medically fragile" conditions.

Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said inspections did not reveal problems with the care of children until this year. But he acknowledged that LifeLine had not notified the state of the police and fire reports alleging abuse and injuries, or of its bankruptcy filing.

He said his agency would take steps to prevent that from happening again. All of the state's providers will be formally reminded to report incidents that involve emergency personnel, he said.