Disabled Man’s Death Ruled Homicide

224E5thLauren Carol Smith The A.H.R.C. group home on East Fifth Street
where Alonzo Eason lived

The death of a severely disabled man who lived in a group home on East Fifth Street has been ruled a homicide, the Medical Examiner’s office has confirmed. The police are investigating the case but have yet to make an arrest, according to a spokesman.

On the morning of Aug. 2, Alonzo Eason was wheeled out of the group home and loaded into the back of a Ford Econoline van. He was then driven uptown to a day program on Lexington Avenue near 125th street.

While the other residents were taken inside for their classes, Mr. Eason was left behind. Due to brain damage caused by a fever he had contracted as a baby, he was unable to communicate. As the temperature outside climbed above 90 degrees, Mr. Eason’s absence went unnoticed. When he was finally discovered at 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, he was unresponsive and paramedics declared him dead at the scene.

The group home and day program are both run by A.H.R.C. New York City, a large private provider of services for developmentally disabled people.

Mr. Eason’s older brother, Leroy, confirmed that he had hired a lawyer and private investigator to pursue a civil action against A.H.R.C. “Here we are dealing with a case of pure neglect,” he said. “I’m irate at the things that have occurred.”

Mr. Eason is the second resident of the East Fifth Street home to have died in unusual circumstances in recent years. In December 2007, Abram Dweck, a 56-year-old man in A.H.R.C.’s care had six of his teeth removed without his mother’s knowledge. A lack of communication between his care givers led to him being fed a ham sandwich and he choked to death.

Shirley Berenstein, a spokeswoman for A.H.R.C., declined to detail specific steps the organization has taken since Mr. Eason’s death and would not reveal whether any specific employees have been held responsible or their employment terminated.

In an e-mailed statement she said, “On these rare occasions A.H.R.C. has thoroughly investigated these incidents internally, immediately notifying all regulatory agencies, working with them to their satisfaction, and has diligently followed all protocols. Where appropriate, corrective actions have been identified, they have been implemented and follow-up mechanisms, including ongoing training and re-training, have been put into place to avoid future incidents.”

The Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, which regulates and funds organizations like A.H.R.C., promised to investigate Mr. Eason’s death after it was reported in the press. Travis Proulx, a spokesman for the office, said that although the investigation is ongoing, Mr. Eason’s death showed that “there was a total breakdown in A.H.R.C.’s service that day.”

Over the summer a series of investigative reports by The Times has revealed deficiencies in the way New York State cares for developmentally disabled people. In November it was revealed that one in six deaths in care homes are attributed to unnatural or unknown causes. The stories caused Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, to pledge to reform care for disabled people in the state.

Mr. Eason was just one of ten disabled people who died because of this summer’s heat, according to the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, a state watchdog.

On Aug. 12, ten days after Mr. Eason’s death, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities issued new guidelines on the transportation of people in the care of private service providers. The memo outlined simple steps that could have prevented Mr. Eason’s death, including the verification of people who are scheduled to be absent and visual checks of vehicles at their destination.

“All applicable staff must be trained on these policies and procedures, including reinforcing with staff the serious life-threatening risks of failing to follow the required procedures,” the memo read.

According to Proulx, that A.H.R.C. staff overlooked Mr. Eason’s absence for a number of hours “demonstrated that they did not have the proper procedures in place.”

Mr. Proulx admitted that in the past “accountability has been a real problem” at the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. Now, he said, in cases like Mr. Eason’s or Mr. Dweck’s, complaints can be filed by a parent or other source and an investigation will be launched immediately. Previously, he said, that did not happen.

“They are going to be penalized,” Mr. Proulx said, referring to A.H.R.C., “but it takes time to audit the whole agency.”