Cedarbrook Residential Center of Nebo is an 80-bed adult care home in McDowell County. Negative state findings and penalties against Cedarbrook disappeared as part of court-ordered compliance with a settlement agreement in January 2017. Michael Gebelein / Carolina Public Press

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New admissions at the controversial Cedarbrook Residential Center in McDowell County can continue for now, a judge announced Monday at the conclusion of more than a week of hearings, which been delayed in part by weather conditions.

Administrative Law Judge Randall May said he hopes to issue a ruling to decide on a more permanent outcome by the middle of February, after weighing the evidence and testimony presented during a series of recent hearings in High Point.

The state Division of Health Service Regulation, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, suspended admissions at Cedarbrook in October in response to a series of negative findings at the 80-bed adult care home, which houses many adults with mental illness and cognitive disabilities.

Judge May issued a temporary stay on the admissions suspension in November, recognizing that it threatened the economic viability of the facility while owners challenged the state’s findings.

In this month’s hearings, lawyers for the Nebo-based facility had asked May to remove the suspension of admissions permanently.

May’s announcement Monday means that he will take his time to consider the situation before taking more permanent action. It does not appear to give any clear indication of whether the judge found Cedarbrook’s or the state’s case more persuasive.

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Regardless of May’s action on the question of the admissions suspension, Cedarbrook’s broader legal challenge to the state’s findings and penalties could proceed to a trial unless Cedarbrook and the state agree on a settlement.

Cedarbrook attorney Joseph Ponzi told Carolina Public Press that a trial would likely take place in Waynesville with Administrative Law Judge David Sutton, who presided over an earlier lawsuit between the state and Cedarbrook.

In that case, which began with negative state findings in late 2015, the state agreed to settle in September 2016, just as the case was about to proceed to a full trial. Although the settlement required neither party to admit fault, the state agreed to remove a 250-page statement of deficiencies that included allegations of rampant drug use, sexual misconduct and lax supervision of Cedarbrook residents.

The state also agreed to rescind more than $300,000 in fines and to replace a zero-star rating with a four-star rating, which the facility still boasts. That state has not given any clear public reason for its nearly complete capitulation. The fines forgiven amounted to some of the steepest ever imposed on an adult care home in North Carolina.

During the recent hearings in High Point, each of the DHSR surveyors who were present at the 2017 investigation at Cedarbrook testified and entered their survey notes as evidence. Lawyers for Cedarbrook have argued that these and the resulting statement of deficiencies contain numerous factual errors and outright untruths.

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The deficiencies included allegations that one resident was forced to lay on a soiled incontinence pad, that employees of the facility threatened residents and spoke to them inhumanely, that a resident with a history of substance abuse was allowed to ingest mouthwash and hand sanitizer, that another resident was allowed to regularly eat out of the garbage and that many residents didn’t receive needed assistance with bathing.

Lawyers for Cedarbrook presented affidavits from medical professionals and staff at the facility, which that said contradicted those allegations. The state’s lawyers have pushed back against these contentions, presenting evidence and testimony that they contend show the surveyors were objective and professional in observing the situation at Cedarbrook and accurate and justified in their evaluation.

Michael Gebelein

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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