State: Staff abandoned residents of Santa Rosa senior care homes during October wildfires
State regulators moved Thursday to revoke the licenses of two Santa Rosa care homes owned by Oakmont Senior Living, documenting disturbing claims that nearly 100 elderly residents were abandoned by poorly trained staff during the October firestorm.
After a nearly yearlong investigation, the state Department of Social Services filed a complaint this week alleging management and staff repeatedly violated state codes designed to protect the safety of residents at both Fountaingrove facilities, Villa Capri and Varenna.
Regulators will seek lifetime bans against two of the company’s top administrators that would prevent them from ever again working in assisted care facilities licensed by the state.
The 18-page complaint also accused Oakmont officials of making “false and misleading statements” to the public that inflated the role played by the company’s staff during the evacuations.
Residents stranded at Varenna and Villa Capri were later rescued by family members, friends and first responders, investigators said. The allegations echo similar claims raised by a lawsuit centered around the evacuation of Villa Capri that was settled last month on the eve of its scheduled trial.
All residents at both facilities survived the fires, though the civil lawsuit alleged that trauma from the evacuations hastened the deaths of three residents. State investigators concluded more than 20 people left behind at Villa Capri would have died if not for valiant efforts to save them after staff departed.
“These residents would have perished when the facility burned to the ground during the fire,” the state documents said.
Oakmont Senior Living said the allegations were unsubstantiated and unfounded. In an unsigned statement issued Thursday, the company pledged to be “fully transparent and responsive” to resolve the allegations.
“The night of the Tubbs fire, we voluntarily began evacuating residents after we were repeatedly unable to reach emergency authorities on clogged ?911 phone lines. We never received an official evacuation order from emergency authorities,” the company said.
“All 418 residents were safely evacuated. We are immensely grateful for the heroic lifesaving efforts of our employees and their families, neighbors, residents and their families, and emergency authorities,” the company said. “Our residents and their safety have been, and always will be, our first priority.”
15 days to file appeal
Oakmont Senior Living was served with the legal notice Thursday and has 15 days to file an appeal requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge, according to Michael Weston, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services. In the meantime, the company’s licenses remain intact and Varenna - which is still standing - can operate as normal, Weston said.
The Windsor company, founded in 1997 by developer Bill Gallaher, has planned and developed more than 50 retirement communities in the western United States.
Tanja Werle, a Rohnert Park resident who says her grandmother was abandoned at Varenna, said she wasn’t surprised by the results of the state investigation. Her grandmother was evacuated by Werle’s ex-boyfriend, a police detective who checked on the facility after she grew concerned about the fires.
“It was clear to me that there weren’t policies and procedures in place to keep residents safe in the case of an emergency,” Werle said.
Werle expressed hope the investigation might spur positive policy changes at facilities operated by Oakmont, regardless of what becomes of Varenna and Villa Capri, which is in the process of being rebuilt.
“They’re just lucky that nobody died,” Werle said. “Honestly, it could have been much worse.”
Lifetime bans sought
State investigators singled out the actions of Deborah Smith and Nathan Condie, the executive directors of the two facilities during the firestorm. The state wants to revoke their administrator certificates and ban them from ever again working for any facility licensed by the social services department.
Attempts to reach Smith and Condie for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
At Villa Capri, four staff members were working overnight Oct. 8, left in charge of 62 residents who were either in a memory care unit or assisted living, the state alleged. Smith had failed to ensure all of them were familiar with the facility’s emergency procedures or participated in emergency training as required by state law, according to the state’s legal action.
None of them had ever participated in a fire drill involving the evacuation of all Villa Capri residents, and none of them knew where the keys to the facility’s vehicle were kept, the state alleges. Two of the staff members couldn’t perform “standard caregiver duties” due to physical limitations preventing them from lifting more than 10 pounds or using both of their hands, the legal action said.