Durango-based Community Connections Inc. is facing legal challenges after one of its clients died from eating a latex glove and another had her fingertips gnawed off by a puppy.In addition, the agency is trying to rectify its finances after a former finance director neglected his duties for two years, said Jackie Morlan, executive director of the nonprofit agency that provides care to individuals with developmental disabilities in Southwest Colorado.
"It has been a very turbulent past six months," Morlan said during an interview Thursday.
Community Connections has more than 120 employees and serves more than 220 individuals, from infants to seniors. It has an annual budget of $4.4 million, 90 percent of which comes from Medicaid. The rest comes from the state and local governments.
The former finance director, whom Morlan declined to name, failed to file paperwork with the state, which has resulted in penalties against Community Connections, Morlan said. The finance director is not suspected of fraud or embezzlement at this time, she said.
"He was terminated from employment for not performing his job," she said.
Glenda Isabel Herrera
In January, the agency received a formal notice that the mother of a client planned to sue Community Connections for the death of her daughter, Glenda Isabel Herrera, 41, of Durango. But no lawsuit had been filed as of Thursday.
Herrera suffered from pica, a behavioral disorder characterized by an appetite for abnormal substances such as plastic, trash and cigarette butts. It is a disorder that needs to be monitored every second, Morlan said.
Community Connections was aware of the condition and had placed Herrera in a host home where she could receive around-the-clock attention.
Herrera was able to obtain a latex glove - which staff members use for care of clients - and consume it without anyone knowing, Morlan said.
"It happened very quickly," she said. "She had a stomachache, and then was hospitalized."
Herrera died July 28, 2008, at Mercy Regional Medical Center. She suffered a massive infection of the abdomen that spread to her bloodstream as a result of a bowel perforation, according to an autopsy report. Her death was ruled an accident.
The incident was investigated by the Division for Developmental Disabilities, which also ruled the death an accident. No one could figure out how Herrera obtained the latex glove or when she consumed it, Morlan said.
"I can tell you our staff grieved," she said. "It was very, very sad."
In honor of Herrera's memory, Community Connections decorated a Christmas tree with plastic objects, because that's what she liked, Morlan said.
Morlan is unsure if Community Connections is responsible for Herrera's death, because no one knows when, where or how she consumed the glove.
"We just don't know how to track the time that the ingestion happened," she said. "Yes, we could certainly be part of that."
Community Connections also may be responsible for an incident that occurred in August 2006 involving another client, Brandi Clay of Durango.
In a 13-page complaint filed in July 2008 in La Plata County Court, her parents, Blaise and Irene Clay, said Community Connections acted negligently and with extreme and outrageous conduct by allowing their daughter to suffer a spinal injury and allowing a puppy to gnaw off parts of her fingers while she was lying helpless on the living room floor.
The Clays live in Hawaii and filed their lawsuit through a Denver lawyer.
Like Herrera, Clay was placed in a host home where she could receive constant care. Because of her disability and medical issues, she required close supervision at all times and assistance with most activities of daily living, according to the lawsuit.
During the summer of 2006, Clay began to exhibit unusual behavior. Specifically, she demonstrated increased lethargy, confusion and a decreased ability to participate in her own care.
She had fallen out of bed numerous times, and on the morning of Aug. 22, 2006, her host parents found her on the floor of her bedroom. Her clothes were soiled and she smelled, the lawsuit said.
Clay told a host parent that she could not move, and the supervisor dragged her from the bedroom to the living room where she was left unattended for several hours, according to the lawsuit.
During this time, a puppy entered the room and gnawed on Clay's finger, resulting in the loss of two of her fingernails and the loss of feeling in her fingers.
Morlan said the host parent stepped out of the living room only briefly to acquire a cell-phone signal. In all likelihood, Clay had paralysis in the hand when the puppy was chewing at her fingers, Morlan said.
"Nobody would have put up with that if they had feeling in their hand," she said.
When Clay was taken to the hospital, doctors discovered an injury to her spine. But again, no one could say when, where or how the injury occurred.
As a result of the spinal injury, Clay lost her ability to walk; although since then she has demonstrated an ability to walk when she wants, Morlan said.
Clay is one of Community Connection's first clients, and she remains a client today.
"She is walking, talking, smiling - pretty much a happy lady," Morlan said.
Clay's incident was investigated internally and by the La Plata County Human Services, but again, no wrongdoing was found.
However, the contract that Community Connections had with the host home has been terminated.
People have to blink
Morlan said accidents can happen anywhere, and Community Connections is no different.
"Every person we serve is vulnerable, and just like the public, there are accidents," she said.
It is impossible to deliver moment-to-moment supervision at all times, Morlan said; plus, that would defeat the purpose of Community Connections, which is to give people with developmental disabilities a chance to be free and function in society.
She characterized the incidents involving Clay and Herrera as accidents, and said they are the result of not being able to monitor someone at every moment of every day.
"Could they have been preventable?" Morlan asked. "Certainly, if we had someone on the spot at all times. (But) people have to blink. They have to make turns and look the other way. People are sometimes distracted. That is what it is like in the real world."