Public Service Journalism at Its Very Best

A Seattle Times investigation uncovers profiteering and abuse in Washington's elder-care system

Up here in Seattle, we’ve been blessed with some incredible newspaper reporting this week. The kind that makes you glad to be a journalist.

The Seattle Times has published the latest installments of a massive investigation by reporter Michael J. Berens (with the help of a team, of course) into Washington state’s so-called adult family homes system.

It’s public-service journalism at its very best.

The paper published part one of “Seniors for Sale” in January—and that title was no hyperbole. Here was the lede:

The location of the home was secret. Only potential buyers with a $500,000 line of credit could learn its Seattle address. The seller insisted on discretion because the price included three frail seniors who lived inside.

A Bothell real-estate listing last year touted five seniors for $120,000, “sold separately” from the home. Bids for five vulnerable adults in Arlington opened at $90,000 — “cash only.”

These deals aren’t illegal. Washington officials not only know about it, they allow it.

That piece reported on how a twenty-year-old state policy encouraging the placement of old folks in regular neighborhood homes rather than institutions like nursing homes has gone seriously awry. The Times reported that “thousands of vulnerable adults have been exploited by profiteers or harmed by amateur caregivers.” How did it happen?

To encourage this new industry, the state imposed few regulations — no requirements for a minimum level of employees or even, for many years, liability insurance.

Nor are caregivers required to get any kind of license. Stunning. That report shut down the blatant profiteering it documented in the lede.

On Sunday, the paper zeroed in on 236 suspicious deaths in adult family homes in just a five-year span, and it reports that “State ownership rules are so loose that some adult-home owners are business investors who have no prior health-care experience, buying and leasing adult homes like fast-food franchises.”

In examining the deaths, it found that:

• Pressure-sore deaths in adult homes occur at a rate more than 3.5 times higher.

• The rate of deaths from falls is four times higher.

• For choking deaths, the rate is 15 times higher.

The state government doesn’t bother to keep tabs on deaths in the system. In fact:

None of the 236 deaths came to the attention of DSHS, records show. When such cases do get reported to the agency, Leitch said, it investigates them and routinely refers evidence of possible crimes to law enforcement.

But in dozens of cases, DSHS ignored or excused reports of suspicious deaths, including statements from witnesses, The Times has found.

The anecdotes it finds throughout the series, including in the latest installment (which looks at the negligence of the authorities), will make your skin crawl. Read the whole thing.

These are the most vulnerable people in society and they fell through the cracks until the local newspaper found the story and dug deep. This will surely win a Pulitzer, but even that’s not enough praise for this one.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.