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La‘akea Village faces criticism from client families, ex-staff

Mismanagement, poor communication alleged at facility for disabled youths and adults

La‘akea Village board members and Executive Director Sarah Menzies walk past a garden at the Paia community for intellectually and developmentally disabled youths and adults earlier this week. — The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

PAIA — A nonprofit facing allegations of mismanagement, a lack of training and poor communication with client families says that the problems were due to a “period of transition” and have since been improved and vetted by the state Department of Health.

La’akea Village, a community for intellectually and developmentally disabled youth and adults, came under fire in a letter alleging mismanagement and noting “numerous official complaints” made to state agencies over malfeasance, neglect, improprieties and violations of code and behavior. Former employees, client families and community members calling themselves the “Friends for La’akea” signed the letter in August and sent it to the nonprofit’s board, past board president, government officials and the media — spurring enough concern for Maui County to examine its lease with La’akea Village.

Since 2005, the nonprofit has leased 12 acres from the county for $1 a year for the sole purpose “of developing a farm village for developmentally disabled adults.” Located along Baldwin Avenue in Paia, La’akea Village has a garden, orchard and buildings on property that includes a kitchen, community space, office and a country store to sell its produce (though it’s been closed due to COVID-19).

Its residential living program, Mele House, is located in nearby Skill Village.

Joanne Hopper, the mother of a former client who attached her name to the letter, said she has watched the program go downhill. She said the site is not clean with aides needing to clean bathrooms before clients use them, poor communication with families and clients and yelling by staff.

La‘akea Village board members and Executive Director Sarah Menzies walk past a garden at the Paia community for intellectually and developmentally disabled youths and adults earlier this week. — The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

Hopper’s daughter spent around eight years with La’akea Village and left in March because of the issues. Hopper said she has also talked to other families, who are afraid of speaking out.

“We are all on pretty much the same page. They don’t like what’s going on, they don’t like how things changed when management changed,” Hopper said. “It’s really not a game. It’s about the lives of all of these participants. Put yourself in their shoes. They need someone to stick up for them, morning, noon and night.”

Hopper cited problems with communication, recalling a time when her daughter and her aide were not allowed off campus and told they needed written permission two weeks in advance, an issue that Hopper remedied with a phone call.

She added that there was no communication from La’akea Village when her daughter’s aide left the organization, and no word on procedures surrounding COVID-19.

“It’s such a 180 from what it was before,” she said.

Hopper said she hopes that changes have been made. She emphasized that she meant no ill will and wants to love La’akea Village again, stressing that the main focus in the current dispute should be the participants.

Complaints forwarded to The Maui News by Friends for La’akea alleged little training and support of staff, a lack of transparency in the organization’s future plans for a live-and-work community, no farm on the property, a lost agricultural water meter, mismanagement of cases — including some clients who had their services cut from the organization abruptly and one client who lost his federal Housing and Urban Development subsidy — incident reports not going through the proper channels, retaliation, and high turnover with 17 employees leaving the organization in the past year or so.

The concerns prompted the Maui County Council and county Department of Housing and Human Concerns to examine La’akea Village’s lease. At the Healthy Families and Communities Committee meeting Thursday, Deputy Housing and Human Concerns Director Linda Munsell said she visited the village and “as of this point, they are in compliance with the lease agreement.” She said the county does not give any grants to the nonprofit. The matter was deferred Thursday to allow more time to gather information from the organization and have more discussion.

La’akea Village’s Board of Trustees said in a letter of response to the complaints that the organization has made changes, including hiring a firm that has been conducting financial audits of the organization, hiring a new business manager, completing and approving an employee handbook, having weekly staff meetings and consulting with the Hawaii Employers Council on human resources concerns.

As for staff leaving, the letter said that retention is difficult due to low wages, high demand and caregiver burnout. However, it has been trying to improve by providing holiday bonuses and is seeking to provide better medical coverage and other benefits.

La’akea Village lost its agricultural water meter because it was not keeping proper records; the nonprofit is now keeping records and will resubmit a form to the county to reinstate the meter, the letter said.

Current Board President Susan Graham said business manager Brian Kakihara didn’t feel right getting a discounted water rate without proper documents.

Over the past week, Graham, Executive Director Sarah Menzies and other board members gave a tour to The Maui News.

There were small gardens, banana trees and an orchard that sat apart from the activity buildings. Graham pointed areas of future farming and soon-to-be planted pineapple tops, along with a chicken coop.

Graham is saddened that the pandemic has impacted their day programs because clients can no longer gather in the community building for classes and meetings. Also discontinued are lunches made from farmed produce with clients eating together on picnic tables.

Organization officials said there are 17 clients in the program, including those at Mele House.

During the tour, Graham said she was not putting blame on anyone or anything and didn’t want to escalate any tensions over the transition. But she did say that “the reason that we had a transition were there were some concerns in some of the things that were written in that complaint letter.”

“There are shades of things that concerned the board and that is why we had a transition,” she continued.

Things had to change as La’akea Village moved from being an entrepreneurial-type organization to one that needed to have all its policies and procedures in place, Graham said.

“We just (didn’t) have the systems in place,” she said.

Graham said that she had tried to contact people listed on the complaint letter but was only able to get ahold of two; the rest did not respond. Those that she was able to reach declined to meet with her.

As for the more individual complaints, such as a client not having services and issues dealing with a client that had a HUD subsidy, Graham said privacy laws prohibit her from disclosing specifics but said that these issues have been reviewed by the state Department of Health. The organization was not reprimanded, she said.

Graham added: “Like a school, we can not always be the right fit for every person with a disability.”

“The decisions did not come lightly. I think I understand the caregivers’ anger, but I certainly don’t think the rest of our community should be maligned because we made some tough calls,” Graham said.

No one was asked to leave the program because they raised issues, she added.

State investigates

Mary Brogan, chief of the state Department of Health’s Developmental Disabilities Division, which conducts systemic program and fiscal monitoring of providers such as La’akea Village, acknowledged in an email to The Maui News that over the past two years, several formal complaints were filed against the organization and investigated by the division.

In general, the complaints alleged issues with La’akea Village’s response to participants’ needs, compliance with provider standards and issues involving Mele House, Brogan said.

The Developmental Disabilities Division “has confirmed that La’akea has taken steps to address and resolve concerns identified by the complainants and has a plan in place to ensure compliance with the waiver standards. Some of the alleged issues were not substantiated based on evidence obtained during the investigations,” Brogan wrote.

One of the complaints submitted was not investigated because it was a personnel matter, over which her division does not have jurisdiction.

Brogan said the division also received a copy of the August complaint letter and “has concluded that there are no outstanding issues that require further investigation.”

She added that the division would continue to monitor the program.

Co-founder’s thoughts

La’akea Village co-founder and former board President Donna Ting, who left the board for family reasons in 2017, said she was saddened by the situation.

“It’s such a need in the community,” she said. “I sincerely hope they get their ducks in a row.”

Her main concern was with safety and that no one in the program gets hurt. Graham credits Ting and former Executive Director Andrea Hall Rodgers with creating La’akea Village “out of a pile of dirt out of the ground.”

In an interview Friday, Hall Rodgers said she was let go in late November 2018. This came as she was still on worker’s compensation for rupturing her Achilles tendon. She said she was told she did not have the needed leadership skills to move the organization forward.

Hall Rodgers said she asked for an exit interview, to continue on the board and to help with the transition. There were no replies.

Hall Rodgers said that overall “safety, security and quality of life for the clients” are her priorities.

Hall Rodgers, who currently is the executive director of the Maui Autism Center Foundation, said that not all of those who have raised issues about the organization are aligned with her leadership. There are others who have spoken out about the organization that have never known her, Hall Rodgers said.

Graham said Hall Rodgers is a “great advocate for intellectually and developmentally disabled people,” and “we owe her a great deal of praise and admiration for her years of work getting La’akea established.”

The board’s decision to replace Hall Rodgers had nothing to do with her injury, but the board “realized the organization needed a new direction and relieved her as executive director.”

Graham said the board offered her an opportunity to stay involved, but in the end Hall Rodgers did not accept. (Hall Rodgers says she was not offered another position.)

“The board has confidence in our current administration and the ability to meet the needs of our participants and families,” Graham said.

Menzies, who was appointed in 2019 to replace Hall Rodgers and has been a target of the allegations of mismanagement, said that she wished those concerned would reach out to her. She noted that sometimes inaccurate stories get passed from one person to another.

She said La’akea Village does have a grievance procedure and “more often than not, we are able to work with anyone who raises a concern because there is open communication both ways.”

“I do hope everyone can heal from the challenging transition so we can move forward and continue to show up with the most important task at hand, which is the participants themselves,” Menzies said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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