Ollette Omedelena loves the two gurgling fountains in the backyard of her Washington Park home, even though listening to them sometimes makes her cry. For ten years, Omedelena cared for two women with severe developmental disabilities. One of them, a blind woman in her sixties named Jim Anna, would sit among the flowers and vines and listen to the water for hours. "That's why I have these two fountains," Omedelena says.
But that was before Jim Anna and the other woman, Rosie, were taken away from Omedelena and before she got into a dispute with the nonprofit agency that paid her to care for them, a conflict that began with accusations of neglect and ended in a bitter courtroom confrontation.
Although a jury ruled in favor of Omedelena in May and awarded her more than $375,000 in damages, it was bittersweet vindication: Jim Anna died suddenly in someone else's care, and Omedelena believes she would still be alive if she'd been left with her.
A retired social worker, Omedelena had made the two women a part of her family. Many such people are cared for in private homes in Colorado, and the host family must provide 24-hour care. Because of the enormous responsibility, many caretakers burn out after a few years, but Omedelena loved looking after her two clients. "That was my whole life," she says. "We had lots of fun. We'd go out to dinner, we'd go out shopping. We belonged to the zoo and the Botanic Gardens. Jim Anna loved to smell the plants. Five days a week we played around, and on Sunday we went to mass."
Omedelena worked for a private nonprofit, Bethphage Incorporated, which is one of 36 private agencies that contract with Denver Options Incorporated to provide care for about 2,000 developmentally disabled people in Denver. Denver Options, which is also a nonprofit, supervises community care for the state. Federal and state Medicaid funds cover most of the cost, and individual providers like Omedelena provide the day-to-day care.
Over the years, however, Omedelena had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Bethphage and what she viewed as too many bureaucratic hassles. Several other providers had also become disenchanted with the management and had chosen to leave the agency, resulting in a damaging drop in revenue for Bethphage, which takes a cut of the Medicaid money. On June 13, 1998, Omedelena notified Bethphage that she intended to enter into a contract with a different service agency, assuming she'd be able to keep Jim Anna and Rosie in her home.
Around the same time that Omedelena gave notice to Bethphage, she was visited by a state survey team that regularly drops in on caretakers and their clients to evaluate their performance. The team met Omedelena at a beauty salon where she and the two ladies went to have their hair done. (Omedelena says she often spent her own money taking Jim Anna and Rosie out, since the state provides only $34 a month for such expenses.)
After Jim Anna's hair was finished, she grew impatient waiting for the others and started screaming in the crowded salon, saying she wanted to eat. "She was diabetic and would get irrational when hungry," says Omedelena.
To placate her, Omedelena let her sit in the van they had driven to the salon, which was parked about 25 feet from the entrance. Clients like Jim Anna are never supposed to be left alone, however, and the survey team wrote up an "incident report," noting that Jim Anna had been alone in the van for fifteen to twenty minutes.
One member of the survey team, Barbara Sherbondy, was Omedelena's direct supervisor at Bethphage. She refused to sign the incident report, since she thought it was too minor an infraction. But Jim Anna's brief time in the van would soon be used to justify her removal from her longtime home and to ban Omedelena from caring for the developmentally disabled.
When the beauty salon incident was reported, a Denver Options disciplinary committee simply reminded Omedelena that clients were never to be left unattended. A few days later, Denise Couterie, the executive director of Bethphage, visited Omedelena's home and asked her to withdraw her notice of contract termination and stay with the agency. Omedelena declined the offer and made it clear she would still change agencies.
On July 7, 1998, a Denver Options committee met to consider what to do with Jim Anna and Rosie. The committee decided to leave both women with Omedelena, who had already signed a contract with a new agency. Denver Options agreed to fund that contract beginning July 14.
On July 9, Omedelena took the two women on a road trip around Colorado and southern Wyoming; she'd told Sherbondy they were going.
But on July 13, Bethphage suddenly informed Omedelena's son that it was going to remove Jim Anna and Rosie from Omedelena's home. Shortly thereafter, Denver Options reversed its decision to fund Omedelena's new contract, citing the salon incident -- and the road trip -- as evidence of neglect. In the meantime, Bethphage told the police that Omedelena might have kidnapped her two clients. The three women returned to Denver on July 17, and the next day, Jim Anna and Rosie were removed from Omedelena's home in tears.
Omedelena filed suit three weeks later. She also sought an injunction to have the women returned to her care, but was unsuccessful.
All of this was shocking to many of those, including Sherbondy, who knew Omedelena and had watched her care for the two women. Sherbondy's statement to the court was especially telling: "Throughout the time I supervised Ms. Omedelena, I found that she gave exemplary care. She genuinely loved and cared for both ladies. In all my contacts with Ms. Omedelena and the ladies, I never observed anything to cause me any concern over the care that the ladies received."
Sherbondy went on to describe the beauty salon incident and said she didn't believe Jim Anna was in any danger while she waited in the van. "Some time later, I was requested to make an incident report concerning the matter," she wrote. "I refused." Sherbondy also noted that although Bethphage usually removes clients immediately from homes when accusations of abuse or neglect are made, the agency chose to leave Jim Anna and Rosie in the home for weeks after the incident.
But Sherbondy also pointed out another reason Bethphage may have had for taking the two women away from Omedelena: Bethphage managers knew that providers like Omedelena were jumping ship and causing financial problems for the agency. "I was aware that many host home providers had been moving to different service agencies due to dissatisfaction with Bethphage management," she wrote. "There was a great deal of concern among Bethphage management over the loss of consumers."
Omedelena is convinced that this is the real reason behind what happened and that Bethphage wanted to make an example of her to frighten other providers who might have been thinking about leaving. She believes Bethphage was even able to persuade Denver Options to back up the company. "It was retaliation," she says. "I had the gumption to stand up to them."
But Stephen Block, executive director of Denver Options, says Omedelena has no one but herself to blame for losing Jim Anna and Rosie. "She left with the two women and didn't let people know where she'd gone," he says. "She exercised such poor judgment that allowing people with developmental disabilities to remain in her care was something we couldn't do."
Block says that even though Omedelena told Sherbondy she was going on vacation, she didn't say where the three women were going or when they would be back.
Michael Mihm, an attorney for Denver Options, says he investigated Omedelena's trip and found she had gone across state lines and that the receipts from the hotel she stayed in in Laramie, Wyoming, were under her son's name.
Omedelena's attorney, Leslie Petri, says Omedelena often used her son's credit card to pay for hotel rooms, which is why she registered under his name. In fact, she adds, her client frequently took the two women on road trips during the summer. "In 1997 she took the ladies on a seven-week trip throughout the South. During that road trip, they didn't know how to get ahold of her, either. It wasn't considered a big deal the summer before," Petri says.
The case finally went to trial in Denver District Court in May. The jury sided with Omedelena, finding that her reputation and livelihood had been damaged by improper behavior on the part of both Bethphage and Denver Options.
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Bethphage plans to appeal. "Because of the status of the case, our comments must be limited," reads a statement from the company. "Bethphage is recognized nationally as a leader in providing services for people with disabilities. Our number-one core value is safety. In keeping with that core value, we remain strongly committed to the safety of the people we serve."
Omedelena got her victory, but she's left with nothing more than memories of the two women with whom she shared her life. "They loved Mr. Taylor's," she recalls, talking about Sam Taylor's Bar-B-Que in Glendale. One time, "Jim Anna sat there sniffing. The bar was full of men. She stood up and said, 'Boys, we're gonna have a good time tonight.' I'll never forget that. She was just precious. There are a thousand funny stories about Jim Anna."
When Jim Anna died, Omedelena organized the funeral.
"I go to the graveyard and talk to her," she says. "You can't live with somebody 24 hours a day for ten years and not think of them as family. I catch myself looking for Jim Anna. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of her sitting here and listening to that fountain. I loved her."