Last August, 20-year-old Brian Nevins of Oceanside, New York, died tragically. He was left for five hours, locked in a parked and locked minivan on a sweltering day, on the grounds of Woods Services in Langhorne, PA, where he had lived for six years since he was 14 years old. The temperature reached 97 degrees outside the van and probably went up to 125 or 130 degrees in an hour inside the van. As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stacey Strauss, a staff member at Woods Services who was (according to staff) assigned to attend Nevins, repeatedly ‘flouted’ a rule forbidding her to use her personal cell phone while at work.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
While on duty that day, records show, Strauss placed or received 34 cell-phone calls and 71 text messages. The calls alone ate up more than three hours of her eight-hour shift. The longest call, lasting 44 minutes, occurred during the critical first hour that Bryan Nevins, 20, sat helpless in the van Strauss had parked after returning to Woods from a field trip.
41-year-old Strauss was scheduled for trial on Monday in Bucks County Court. She is charged with neglecting a care-dependent person, involuntary manslaughter, and recklessly endangering another person. She has denied the charges, saying that another staff member was overseeing Nevins’ care that day. However, Woods Services workers say that they witnessed Strauss being assigned to care for him.
Court records document that Strauss had been reprimanded at least three times between October 2008 and July 14 for using her cell phone on duty. An eight-year employee of Woods Services, Strauss was fired after Nevins’ death.
One of Strauss’s lawyers, Robert Lynch, stated that she had been voted ‘employee of the month’ and ‘”was given accolades, and … was loved by her coworkers and clients.”‘ He ‘would not concede that Strauss made any calls or sent any texts on duty July 24,’ and suggested that another person might have used her phone to make the calls and send the text message. However, the Philadelphia Inquirer provides this account:
Cheryl Kauffman, a Woods Services spokeswoman, said that workers in Strauss’ position are not permitted to use their cell phones for personal reasons while on duty. Work-related calls are allowed, she said.
On the way back from Sesame Place, the group stopped to eat at a McDonald’s on Lincoln Highway. A security video shows that while the others were eating, Strauss entered the women’s bathroom at 11:38 a.m. and left at 11:50 a.m.
Phone records show that a 12-minute call was made at that time from Strauss’ phone to a number prosecutors believe belongs to her boyfriend, James said.
Calls to and from that number account for 87 of the 189 total minutes Strauss’ phone was used during her shift. When an Inquirer reporter called the number last week, it went to the voice mail of a man identifying himself as “Tony,” who did not return a message seeking comment.
Strauss returned in the van to Woods Services about noon, court records say. She later told investigators that everyone exited the van when she parked it and that Douglas had taken Nevins back to his building.
Woods Services workers have testified that escorting Nevins that day had been Strauss’ responsibility.
She may have been on the phone instead with “Tony.” Records show a 44-minute call from her cell phone to his number starting at 12:14 p.m.
Due to the extend of his disabilities, Nevins was always supported to have a staff member ‘within physical reach…when traveling off the Woods Services grounds or near traffic; on the facility’s grounds, he was ‘to be within view of a worker at all times.’
I am very disturbed by the confusion about who was assigned to oversee Nevins’ care. Should there not be some sort of paper record, such as a logbook or other documentation, about which staff member is assigned to which person?
The tragic death of Nevins also highlights how difficult it is to find, train, and support workers who oversee the 24/7 care of individuals with disabilities like him and my teenage autistic son, Charlie. Frankly, I’ve heard too many reports of staff members faltering in their care of individuals with disabilities; of neglecting their duties; of abusing those they are supposed to be caring for. My husband Jim are currently our son’s only caregivers when he is not in school (where is trained by a very dedicated staff of teachers, aides, and therapists in a large county autism center). We have not yet felt that we can send Charlie to sleepaway camp, even after hearing positive reports about such from other families, because of concerns about Charlie’s care—my son has a history of some very difficult behavior issues and is minimally verbal—precisely because we fear some thing terrible, and tragic, happening.
I know that Charlie will have to live under the full-time care of staff members some day. But we have to make sure that adequate training, staff support, and regulations are in place wherever he does live—and that such are carried out, 24/7, every single day of the year.
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