Friday, November 18, 2005
Co-workers see a young man 'waste away'
Jason Roberts' grin got him through a lot in his short life.
When his smile began to fade, his co-workers at Wal-Mart knew something was wrong.
He'd lost so much weight his pants slipped down. The developmentally disabled young man sometimes vomited and shook uncontrollably at work.
Dedicated and hardworking, Roberts now struggled to collect shopping carts from the parking lot. He'd crash into cars, causing damage. His hand hovered in front of his face in an "L-shape" as if he were trying to focus.
"I watched him waste away," said Andy Willms, a loss-prevention manager at the Puyallup store where Roberts worked for seven years.
Alarmed at Roberts' deterioration, his boss contacted Aacres Landing, the for-profit company paid by the state to watch Roberts through the Community Protection Program. She asked for a meeting on the afternoon of June 23, 2005.
The meeting never happened. That morning, a caregiver found the 28-year-old Roberts dead in bed at his Tacoma home.
An investigator from the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office arrived, interviewed staff and decided an autopsy was unnecessary.
"He had an established medical history," said Bob Bishop, the medical investigator. "It was a good clean home ... I saw nothing to raise my hackles. That's why I released him straight to the funeral home."
The Department of Social and Health Services doesn't require autopsies on Community Protection clients, leaving that decision up to local authorities.
A state incident report on the day of his death said, "There were no reported or indicated signs/symptoms of any health problems with Jason R. apparent to staff."
The medical examiner decided Roberts' death was due to natural causes with "complications of a developmental disability," Bishop said. He wouldn't say what those complications were.
Roberts is one of 13 Community Protection clients who have died in the past four years. All but one of the deaths has been blamed on natural causes. An Aacres Landing client died in June 2001, a few months after accidentally setting himself on fire.
DSHS officials refused to release names of those who died, citing federal and state privacy laws, making it nearly impossible to investigate their deaths. Roberts' death came to light because his co-workers took up a collection to put his obituary in a local newspaper.
After his death, Roberts' boss called Adult Protective Services to report concerns about his care. "They said they'd look into it," Willms said.
A week ago, DSHS released a routine internal mortality review into Roberts' death with his name redacted. State officials won't acknowledge Roberts was in the program or discuss what happened.
The review says Roberts was seen by doctors six times between August 2004 and his death last June, for complaints of dizziness and vomiting. Tests found no reason for his illness, although he was put on a month's medical leave in February.
Roberts, who became disabled after suffering a head injury as a baby, was last seen by a doctor for a medication check on May 18. Anxiety might be to blame for his symptoms, the review suggested.
State officials based their review on staff notes from Aacres Landing, saying they could not obtain his medical records.
"There is nothing to suggest that Mr. (Roberts) death could have been anticipated or prevented," the report concluded on Nov. 4.
The review did recommend that when a young client dies unexpectedly, an autopsy should be "encouraged."
Aacres Landing administrator Rex Garrett declined to answer questions, saying what's important is the program's successes.
Dozens of Wal-Mart employees packed a small Tacoma chapel for Roberts' funeral.
"One young woman said Jason was the reason she went to work each day," said his grandmother, Maude Roberts of Seattle. "I was so overwhelmed. I knew he was loved."
Jason's death was a blow to his grandmother, whose husband of 49 years died eight months earlier.
"If you really want to know, I'm just devastated over Jason," she said, breaking into tears. "He was my first grandbaby. He was just special."
From the time he was tiny, Jason was besotted by buses. His grandmother would sit beside him on the curb in front of her Shoreline home for hours, waiting for the No. 317 to roll by.
"He was a walking, talking bus schedule," she recalled.
Jason's grandmother didn't want to talk about what led to his placement in Community Protection. Only about the hole his death has left.
She noticed he was losing weight, maybe 40 pounds or more, but didn't know why.
"I don't think he was taken care of properly," she said. "I think Jason just slipped through the cracks."
Jason posed no threat to the public, the main reason clients are put in Community Protection, said Jani Greer, a job trainer who met him a few years ago while working with disabled adults at Wal-Mart.
At his funeral, Greer shared a reading that ended like this: "Jason's life was all too short, but he didn't stand still while he was here. He left quite a trail in all of our hearts. We will all remember the wonderful young man named Jason."