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Broken plumbing, sewage backup and rat infestation force closure of Santa Rosa senior care home

Report on Redwood Senior Living

In their June 9 site visit, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials found elderly residents had gone without running water since May 28, “due to broken waste plumbing and sewage under the building,” according to a June 15 letter from the county environmental health department to property owners.

Authorities found:

* Plumbing staff reported raw sewage, odors and flies under part of the house where staff lived.

* Evidence of rats under traveling inside the HVAC system beneath the house.

* A portable shower trailer in the driveway was not accessible to residents with disabilities.

* All the toilets had trash can liners in the toilet bowls with kitty litter inside the bag for residents and staff as replacement restrooms.

* Running water was not available for the toilets, showers, laundry and in the bathroom hand sinks and kitchen sinks.

* Rat feces and rat noises were observed along with garbage and junk piled in a shed storing food.

Local authorities have shut down a Santa Rosa assisted living home where elderly residents had been without running water or working toilets for 12 days after a sewage backup beneath the building and amid evidence of rat infestation, according to county and city officials.

Residents of Redwood Senior Living, a 26-bed home in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, were relocated to other facilities after Santa Rosa code enforcement officials and county health authorities documented the squalid conditions on June 9 and issued an order to vacate the home immediately.

Problems at the Burbank Avenue site were first raised June 8 by a local senior advocacy group, which had heard of the issues through a tipster.

Inspectors visited the next day and found a host of health and building code violations, including no running water in the facility, piles of garbage and evidence of rats in a shed storing food, according to a Sonoma County environmental health division report.

In restrooms throughout the home, plastic bags had been placed in toilets and filled with cat litter — a makeshift fix after the plumbing breakdown, according to the county. Photos from the site inspection showed clear plastic liners stretched under the toilet seats, many of them filled with soiled toilet paper.

County and city officials shut down the site the same day and all 18 of the residents were relocated. Five were moved to a senior care facility in Petaluma and 13 residents were put up at a motel on Santa Rosa Avenue, according to Anthony Barbato, owner of Redwood Senior Living.

He said he is covering relocation expenses for residents, as required by state health and safety code.

Officials inspected and shut the facility less than 24 hours after being alerted by Senior Advocacy Services, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that serves as the North Bay’s longterm care ombudsman.

“These conditions were abysmal,” said Crista Barnett Nelson, executive director of Senior Advocacy Services. “Our systems in place need to do better, we need to do better...It was so disappointing to see these residents who are reliant upon us to care for them, and this is the best that we can do?”

Notice to Vacate Redwood Senior Living.pdf

Christine Sosko, director of Sonoma County’s environmental health division, said in 16 years with the agency she had never encountered the use of pet litter and plastic bags as a temporary remedy for toilet services.

“It’s heartbreaking because we just want everyone to be healthy and safe, we don’t want anyone to be living in substandard housing conditions,” she said.

The state Department of Social Services, which regulates assisted living facilities, is conducting an investigation into the plumbing breakdown at the facility, according to a state report. The agency has received no other complaints about the facility since Barbato took it over earlier this year.

State actions could include a citation and plan of correction, civil penalties and the imposition of heightened monitoring. In serious cases, the state may order a temporary suspension of a facility’s license, state officials said.

Water at the facility had been shut off since May 28 because of a broken sewer line that was dumping raw sewage beneath building, according to a county health report that described the violations.

Barbato, the Redwood Senior Living owner, said he’s doing everything he can to fix problems at the 50-year-old home, including what he called some “deferred maintenance.” He said the plumbing system has been repaired and will be tested following a county inspection of septic and well water systems.

The property, in a part of Roseland annexed into Santa Rosa in 2017, is not connected to municipal water and sewer systems.

Barbato said the problems did not get in the way of good care at the home. He said he’s not heard complaints from family members about substandard conditions.

“The main thing we’ve heard from families is that (they) appreciate the care that’s being provided. All the staff are very caring,” he said.

Tip leads to site visit

Barnett Nelson said her agency was notified about the conditions at Redwood Senior Living through a “mandated reporter,“ who faxed a report of suspected elder abuse on Monday, June 7.

"They sent it to our office and said they had no water and that they were using plastic bags over the toilet and that they were not cleaning them on a regular basis,” Barnett Nelson said.

The following day, Senior Advocacy Services staff conducted a site visit and took photographs of conditions in the residents’ rooms, she said

“I called county public health that Tuesday night and by Wednesday, the whole team was at the facility,” Barnett Nelson said.

Report on Redwood Senior Living

In their June 9 site visit, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials found elderly residents had gone without running water since May 28, “due to broken waste plumbing and sewage under the building,” according to a June 15 letter from the county environmental health department to property owners.

Authorities found:

* Plumbing staff reported raw sewage, odors and flies under part of the house where staff lived.

* Evidence of rats under traveling inside the HVAC system beneath the house.

* A portable shower trailer in the driveway was not accessible to residents with disabilities.

* All the toilets had trash can liners in the toilet bowls with kitty litter inside the bag for residents and staff as replacement restrooms.

* Running water was not available for the toilets, showers, laundry and in the bathroom hand sinks and kitchen sinks.

* Rat feces and rat noises were observed along with garbage and junk piled in a shed storing food.

That team included staff from the county environmental health division, Santa Rosa code enforcement, Santa Rosa Fire Department and licensing officials from the state Department of Social Services, which oversees assisted living centers.

County and city officials interviewed staff from a plumbing company that was doing work at the site, as well as facility staff. They were told that the site “had been without running water since 5/28/21 due to broken waste plumbing and sewage under the building,” according to a June 15 letter from the county environmental health department to property owners.

According to the document:

* Plumbing staff reported raw sewage, sewage odors and sewer flies under the front house area where the onsite staff were living.

* There was evidence of rats under the buildings and traveling inside the HVAC system under the house.

* A portable shower trailer in the driveway was not accessible to residents with disabilities.

* All the toilets in the facility had trash can liners in the toilet bowls with kitty litter inside the bag for residents and staff as replacement restrooms.

* Running water was not available for the toilets, showers, laundry and in the bathroom hand sinks and kitchen sinks.

* Rat feces and rat noises were observed along with garbage and junk piled in a shed storing food.

The conditions inside the home were so clearly in violation of health and safety standards that authorities ordered all residents and staff off the property.

Jesse Oswald, Santa Rosa’s chief building official, said action was taken quickly and given priority because the case involved a senior care home, which often house among the most vulnerable local residents.

Many of the residents at the Burbank Avenue facility have cognitive issues such as dementia, Barnett Nelson said.

“The health and safety of our citizens is really our foremost mission, and when we hear concerns voiced of an immediate health and/or life safety issue, our goal is to respond as quickly as possible,” Oswald said.

Health and Safety Violations at Redwood Senior Living.pdf

No notice to newcomers

Santa Rosa resident Margaret Buhn and her sister moved their father into the facility on June 1, four days after the water had been shut off. She said they were never told there was a plumbing issue.

James Buhn, 87, a retired Rancho Cotate High School chemistry and physics teacher, was previously at a local independent living facility but required more care because he was beginning to show signs of dementia, Margaret Buhn said.

Redwood Senior Living offered assisted living at a more reasonable price of $4,500 a month, compared to $6,000 a month at other places, she said.

Buhn said she and her sister had no idea there were problems at the facility until they received a call from Sonoma County Adult Protective Services on June 9 informing them that their father had been evacuated to a local motel room.

“It’s mind blowing, you don’t think that people would do stuff like that,” she said, referring to the use of cat litter at the facility. “Why weren’t we told about the conditions at the facility, or at least that there was no running water?”

Barbato said the use of trash can liners and cat litter had been recommended as a temporary solution by “multiple sources,” including a website that shows how it can be used as part of a portable bathroom during emergencies. He said he did his best to notify family members that the water had been shut off.

“Every resident, whether they were existing or considering the community, were notified of the situation,” Barbato said in an email.

Along with several other residents at the facility, James Buhn was taken for a few days to a local motel before being transferred to Arbol Residences, a senior community in northeast Santa Rosa.

The experience has apparently taken a toll on her father, Margaret Buhn said.

He had to be hospitalized Tuesday after becoming faint and dizzy. He was initially taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where staff said he was dehydrated and had lowered liver function, she said.

“That means he’s really not been getting enough to drink for a while, which is terrible,” Buhn said. He was later admitted to Petaluma Valley Hospital because there was no room at Memorial, she added.

At Petaluma Valley, staff were able to rehydrate the former teacher and improve his kidney function. Buhn said her father “hadn’t had a bowel movement in over three weeks and they fixed that as well.”

She said he is expected to be discharged Friday afternoon and moved to a local rehabilitation facility.

Pummeled by pandemic

Redwood Senior Living is one of 163 residential care facilties offering assisted living and board and care services in Sonoma County. Altogether, those homes have 3,969 beds.

Up until its February transfer to Barbato, the Burbank Avenue facility, under its previous owners, was called St. Francis Assisted Living.

It was among a number of senior care homes that saw major outbreaks of COVID-19 last summer and fall.

By October, the virus had ravaged the facility, infecting all the residents and employees and killing two residents who were in hospice care, said George Wilbor, who owns the property with his wife Rosalinda. The couple, who operated St. Francis for 15 years, held the facility’s license before it was stripped from them by the state in October, he said.

“It was COVID, which was running rampant,” he said. “I did everything I could possibly do and I still caught the COVID.”

Wilbor said the temporary manager ran the facility from October until late January, when Barbato took over the license. Wilbor said he was not notified about the plumbing problems until two or three weeks ago.

“We didn’t even realize what was going on,” he said. “(The state) had a temporary manager — he was told that that pipe was leaking and nobody bothered to tell us ... otherwise we would have fixed it.”

Three previous facility evaluation reports by the state Department of Social Services for Redwood Senior Living, dating back to late January, involved standard visits before and after the state issued its license. The department has logged no previous complaints since Barbato was issued a license on Jan. 27.

State records about the previous St. Francis facility were not immediately available this week.

Operator hopes to reopen

Barbato, 24, who lives in Pleasanton and whose previous experience is in real estate, also obtained a license to operate a 41-bed assisted living facility in Bakersfield in May, according to state records. To date, that facility has logged no complaints, records show.

Redwood Senior Living had 18 residents on hand but a census of 20 when it was shuttered earlier this month. Of the other two residents, one had been admitted to a local hospital for mental health issues the morning of June 9, while the other was sent to a rehabilitation center the previous week, Barbato said.

Santa Rosa City Notice of Violations.pdf

Barbato insists that key violations have been remedied and work on the plumbing system is awaiting inspections. “The plumbing work is done and everything has been cleaned,” he said. “No more sewage is collecting under the house.”

City officials said the property cannot be reoccupied until its repairs and county inspections are done on the property’s septic and water systems; its sewer and plumbing; and the HVAC system. The city has given the property owner 30 days to resolve all other violations.

Jason Montiel, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, would not elaborate on the status of the agency’s investigation.

Barbato said he hopes to have the home reopened as soon as possible.

“We want as little disruption as possible for the residents,” he said. “We want it to be as safe as possible.”

But Buhn said she is still in shock over the money she and her sister ponied up to have their father living in squalid conditions.

“If it were free and they were still doing that, it would be not acceptable,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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