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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

DSHS should keep closer watch

The Spokesman-Review

For the first half of the 20th century, having a developmental disability in the United States probably meant spending your life in a state institution.

By the late 1960s, some 4,200 developmentally disabled residents lived in Washington state facilities such as Lakeland Village at Medical Lake. But attitudes and policies began to change as public agencies faced economic and administrative challenges, and families pushed for their loved ones to be “mainstreamed” in community settings.

The norm now, and the law, is that dependent populations should live in the least restrictive environment. Thus the state routinely contracts with private-sector vendors to deliver services necessary to make community living as independent as possible. This arrangement is not without problems, though.

Consider the situation at Midstream Inc., a private Spokane company that has been providing 26 developmentally disabled people with in-home assistance, including the management of their finances. That’s about to change. The state Department of Social and Health Services is decertifying Midstream, and the Division of Developmental Disabilities is canceling its contract.

It seems that thousands of dollars are missing from Midstream clients’ accounts, and it isn’t the first time. Owner Diane Knutson says an employee was fired in 2000 when $10,000 in clients’ money couldn’t be accounted for. The clients were reimbursed, according to Knutson, and she says current clients will be reimbursed, too.

Meanwhile, police believe Knutson’s employee and daughter, Christina A. Davis, has taken $25,000, maybe much more, from the accounts of clients whose finances she manages.

Knutson once fired Davis for using drugs. Davis once was charged with burglary and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge involving a computer that was taken from a Midstream employee’s home. Davis once was arrested in possession of cocaine and pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance.

Despite all that, Knutson rehired Davis as a financial manager, saying the work is too demanding to let someone else do it.

The criminal justice process will determine if Davis is responsible for the 100 checks police say were written to her on clients’ accounts. But should a person who makes such dubious choices – choices that lead to financial pressures – have had access to clients’ money?

Clearly, no, although the regulatory structure makes it more complicated than it should be. To be hired, Davis would have to have undergone a background check, but because drug possession is not a disqualifying offense, her criminal history would merely have been passed along to her employer – her mother – to decide whether to put her in control of vulnerable adults’ finances.

The Department of Social and Health Services should keep a closer eye on who handles clients’ funds. If it needs broader authority, the Legislature should grant it. The mainstreaming trend that began some 35 years ago was meant to move the disabled from drab institutions into the community. It wasn’t meant to free the state from protecting their interests.

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