Oct 17, 2011

Philly's Terrified Basement Prisoners

Philly's Terrified Basement Prisoners
Oct 16, 2011 4:56 PM EDT Four mentally disabled adults were found chained up and horrifically abused in a Philadelphia basement. Jeff Deeney on the "caretakers" accused of putting them there—and why the system failed.

A shocking discovery on a weathered but quiet stretch of Longshore Avenue in the working-class Tacony neighborhood shook Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon: four cognitively impaired disabled adults were found malnourished, chained to a water heater, and locked behind a steel door in a filthy 15-by-15-foot closet in the basement of an apartment complex.

The details of the story are still taking shape. The four adults and their “caretakers”—charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault, and various other crimes—arrived in the city by way of Florida just a few weeks ago, but lived in Texas prior to that. What brought them to Philadelphia is still unclear, but one of them, 50-year-old Linda Westen, is a convicted murderer. They are suspected of financially exploiting their captives for the meager $674 per month they received in government benefits. The quartet of disabled adults have reportedly since received medical care at a nearby hospital and been sent to a local shelter, where they are receiving social services.

Neighbors were stunned to learn of the nauseating crimes taking place on their street. Danielle Tisdale, the block captain who lives a couple doors down from what has now been dubbed the “hell house” in the local media, says Longshore Avenue is a tightknit community where neighbors take care of each other.

“We look out for people around here," says Tisdale. "Kids, the elderly—f it snows or in the summer when it’s real hot we make sure everyone has what they need. Nobody would have thought something like this could happen around here.”

A woman who gave her name as Nancy says she’s lived in the small two-story apartment building where the disabled adults were discovered since March and never suspected that anything was awry.

“This is a quiet building, you could hear a pin drop in here. We heard nothing, no screams, no banging, nothing. There weren’t any bad smells, we had no idea. It wasn’t like no Jeffrey Dahmer or Gary Heidnik situation.”

Nancy said she was aware the building had a basement, but nobody had a reason to use it.

“Nobody ever went in the basement. It’s like a storage area, with no washers or dryers or nothing. I can’t really say I ever had a reason to be down there.” She noted that Westen and her alleged partners in crime lived on the second floor next to her, and had no reason to access the basement, either.

But neighborhood kids, for their part, say they had their suspicions. They described one of the accused male captors as a “creepy guy in a tan trenchcoat” who once followed one of the block's little girls to her school.

The central question of how a crew of criminals could have transported four disabled adults across multiple state lines and kept them chained in a basement for weeks without raising an eyebrow requires a look at state standards for protecting those with disabilities. Both the states of Florida and Texas have Adult Protective Services programs whose missions specifically include stopping anyone who is “misusing the resources of an elderly or disabled person for personal or monetary benefit. This includes taking Social Security or SSI (Supplemental Security Income) checks, abusing a joint checking account, and taking property and other resources.”

But it’s unclear whether these agencies had any contact with the four disabled adults before they were dragged to Philadelphia by their kidnappers. Many states have regulations regarding interstate travel for the disabled in order ensure their safety and that their basic needs are being met, but only for those receiving state-funded services. Westen and the other alleged kidnappers may have prevented the state from having any contact with their victims, knowing that contact with state agencies would bring more scrutiny.

Pennsylvania, for its part, only voted for an Adult Protective Services Act in April of this year, and the new Act remains an unfunded mandate. The state’s Department of Welfare has proposed no new regulations that would define what Adult Protective Services will consist of, or who will be contracted to administer them, in the months since the law passed.

Block captain Tisdale says that an anonymous Adult Protective Services emergency hotline would have come in handy in reporting Westen to authorities. She says that the previous weekend Longshore Avenue had a flea market and Westen was there, verbally abusing one of the cognitively impaired adults being kept in the basement in view of all the neighbors.
“We said to each other, ‘That’s a grown man, why is she talking so disrespectful to him?’ I would definitely say the way she was treating him was abusive.”

Without an investigative hotline to call, Tisdale did what she thought was best, telling the landlord who manages the property. It was Tisdale’s call that prompted the landlord to search the basement, where he found the four adults covered in bedsores and living in filthy close quarters.

Neighborhood kids described one of the accused male captors as a “creepy guy in a tan trenchcoat” who once followed one of the block's little girls to her school.
Bethany Canver is a licensed social worker who provides supports coordination for disabled people in Philadelphia. Her clients are typically profoundly impaired; many are nonverbal, having conditions like cerebral palsy and progressive multiple sclerosis. Her clients are also poor, often living in Philadelphia’s most violent neighborhoods, and some are disabled as a result of gunshot wounds or other violent trauma. Canver’s job is about as close to Adult Protective Services as Philadelphia gets at the moment. She navigates the city doing home visits, meeting with attendant caregivers, and confirming the health and safety of her clients. She says that, unfortunately, exploitation of disabled adults is a common event.

“This case is particularly extreme; however, exploitation and abuse are rampant. In general, the disabled folks are vulnerable to exploitation, in part because of the nature of their impairment. For example, if you’re nonverbal, intellectually impaired, medically fragile, or have trouble with decision making, you’re going to need assistance with some parts of day-to-day life. And unfortunately caregivers don’t always have the best interest of people with disabilities at heart. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that direct care services are provided by nonprofessionalized workers who are not only doing stressful, draining work, but also only making like $9 an hour. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that financial exploitations happens with all these factors in the mix.”

She gives a common example of the kind of low-level theft that corrupt caretakers casually engage in, and are rarely punished for, that has a major impact on the life quality of disabled adults.

“For instance, a consumer of mine had an attendant who works for a state-funded attendant care agency steal her SEPTA Trailpass worth $127. My consumer uses her Trailpass for therapeutic swimming sessions, grocery shopping, visiting friends and family, and she lives on fixed SSI income. She doesn’t have an extra $127 laying around to replace it, so for the rest of the month she was stuck at home.”

Canver says that state bureaucrats can be unhelpful when disabled people try to report such instances of exploitation, and with no sanctions coming from the state for professional malfeasance, corrupt care workers are able to float from job to job, stealing at will, and not suffering any consequences.

For now, at least, one criminal group of abusive disabled-adult exploiters of has been taken off the streets, and the residents of Longshore Avenue are recovering from the shock of finding the nightmarish scene in their midst.

“This is sad, it’s beyond sad,” says alleged kidnapper Linda Westen’s neighbor Nancy. “Our hearts and our prayers go out to the victims.”

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker and freelance writer from Philadelphia. He works with felony drug offenders in the criminal-justice system and writes about urban poverty and drug culture.

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