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April 29, 2002

BROKEN HOMES | WHERE HOPE DIES

Here, Life Is Squalor and Chaos

By CLIFFORD J. LEVY

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Seaport Manor in Brooklyn, an adult home the state once called "The New Warehouse for the Insane."

Multimedia
  Audio: A Resident Discusses the Conditions at Seaport Manor

  Interactive Graphic: Chronology of Death

Related Articles
A yearlong investigation by The Times of adult homes for the mentally ill found neglect, malfeasance and death. Second of three articles.

Broken Homes | A Final Destination: For Mentally Ill, Death and Misery (April 28, 2002)

Read a State Report on a 1999 Inspection of Seaport Manor (pdf) (April 29, 2002)

Read a State Report on a 2000 Inspection of Seaport Manor (pdf) (April 29, 2002)

Read a State Report on a 2001 Inspection of Seaport Manor (pdf) (April 29, 2002)


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Richard Perry/The New York Times
"They have nobody who is looking after those people," a former worker, Angela Peters, said of Seaport Manor.




NICOLE BENGIVENO/The New York Times
Residents often wait in long lines at Seaport, either to receive their medication or, as in the case above, a snack.


It was the fall of 2000 and state inspectors were due to arrive at Seaport Manor, an adult home for the mentally ill in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Upstairs, some of its 325 residents, bewildered and mumbling, shuffled along the dreary hallways. Downstairs, a handful of workers hastily doctored records, they said, to make it seem as if the home was providing proper care.

The workers said they concocted case notes for manic-depressives who holed up in their rooms for so long they became malnourished. They invented psychiatric evaluations for residents who went untreated and turned suicidal. They scrawled therapy plans for women who prostituted themselves in the stairwells for cigarette money and for men who shook down other residents for their $4-a-day allowance.

"We were told by the administrators at the home to be creative," said one worker, Toshua Courthan. "We were told we had to, or else we would lose our jobs. What the state wanted to see was that these people were being looked after, but they were not."

Ms. Courthan was fired after reporting the falsifying of records and other misconduct at the home to the state, and she is suing Seaport. Her account was independently supported by other current and former workers, including two who participated that evening, as well as by an examination of some of the records.

The inspectors who showed up that day in 2000, however, apparently never detected the hundreds of sham files, according to state records. Seaport, which receives more than $3.5 million annually from the government, stayed open. For its residents, life has remained as wretched as ever.

Occupying a one-acre tract, the five-story brick building sits behind a row of shrubbery at 615 East 104th Street, not far from the neighborhood piers. A generation ago the home, along with dozens like it, represented a briefly entertained hope for the thousands of mentally ill people being pushed out of state psychiatric hospitals. In these homes, residents would learn to live independently and enter a mainstream community.

Just how profoundly that vision has collapsed can be appreciated in words from the state itself, which dubbed Seaport "The New Warehouse for the Insane" in a 1997 study by the Office of Mental Health. If the state gave Seaport a cynical nickname, though, records show it did nothing meaningful to improve or police it.

A portrait of life inside Seaport was gleaned from more than 10 visits, more than 500 pages of state inspection reports and government documents obtained by The New York Times, as well as more than 50 interviews with workers and residents.

During a typical visit to the home, residents can be seen sitting for hours in the crowded smoking room, rocking back and forth, speaking only to themselves. Others can be spotted walking to the local liquor store, much to the dismay of those at the nearby day care center.

Current and former workers said two residents openly deal crack from their rooms, contributing to the drug abuse, loan-sharking, prostitution and violence that have gripped the home for years. In this predatory atmosphere, the frail quickly learn that the safest place is behind the closed doors of their rooms. Others find different ways to get by.

"It's tough around here," said a resident in her 50's who said she sells sex to workers and other residents for a few dollars. "You have to do it to survive."

Ambulances are regular visitors. In a three-month period last year, they made 93 runs to the home, city records show, sometimes to take away the dying, other times to rescue the neglected.

For years, workers said, a security guard subdued psychotic residents by beating them. Other employees are convicted drug dealers, prison records show. Several former workers said the home sometimes continued to collect the monthly disability benefits of residents after they died, or gave their Social Security numbers to illegal immigrants the home hired.

There were dozens of numbers to choose from. From 1995 through 2001, one Seaport resident died roughly every month, according to an analysis by The Times. In all, at least 79 died, including at least three who committed suicide and two others whose bodies were discovered only after workers were drawn to the smell of decay.

"This is the last stop," a resident named Jerry said in his room at the home. "They are not preparing anyone for living outside of here."

For 26 years, the state has documented problems at Seaport and then averted its eyes. Since 1998, conditions have been so bad that inspection reports concluded that Seaport, as one said, "was in serious noncompliance in all major areas of operation."

The reports cited inadequate staffing and dangerous lapses in the distribution of medication. During a 1999 inspection, investigators refused to fully examine rooms because they were so fetid. They also remarked in their records how workers at the home were able to walk past disheveled residents without even noticing them.

Only in recent months, after The Times began an investigation of Seaport by requesting government records and questioning officials, did the state say it would crack down on the home.

Its response, however, has been erratic.

Last August, the state said it would try to revoke the operators' license. Last month, it agreed to let them surrender their license, pay a $20,000 fine and close the home. But in recent days, the state, confounded by the prospect of finding new housing for the residents, indicated it might try to keep Seaport open by installing new operators.

For now, the residents remain in Seaport under the same operators who the state has known for years have run a home of squalor and neglect. In 2001 alone, at least 18 residents died, The Times's analysis shows, 10 of whom were under 60.

Seaport's operators Baruch Mappa, Martin Rosenberg and Emil Klein said through their lawyer they would not be interviewed.

Before agreeing to surrender their license, the operators asserted in a disciplinary hearing before the State Department of Health that the home had undertaken renovations, overhauled medication practices and brought in more workers to increase supervision of residents.

Continued
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