Colorado law leaves the care of adults with disabilities who live in small community “host homes” to multiple state and private agencies – but gives local fire departments no power to make sure they’re safe, a 9Wants to Know investigation found.
The homes, where as many as three adults with disabilities live with their caregivers, are not licensed by the state and not subject to rigorous fire-safety requirements – local firefighters often don’t know where they are, don’t have the power to inspect them, and don’t have the power to order changes even if they know of problems.
The operators aren’t required to install sprinkler or alarm systems.
When a fire broke out at an Arvada host home on May 14, 2016, taking the lives of three people, responding firefighters encountered a number of hazards that may have played a role in the tragedy, the 9NEWS investigation found.
A bedroom door secured with a double-key deadbolt lock – and no one knew where the key was. A door out of the kitchen blocked by a standup freezer. A window in the bedroom where a woman with disabilities lived blocked by a table piled with clutter. Basement windows covered by bars. Missing smoke alarms. A fire extinguisher that hadn’t been inspected in nearly two years.
All of it spelled out in hundreds of photographs and investigative reports from the Arvada Fire Protection District and Arvada Police Department obtained by 9Wants to Know under Colorado’s open records laws.
The early morning fire killed Tanya Bell, a 39-year-old woman with cerebral palsy and other disabilities, and a young mother and daughter, Cristina Covington, 23, and Marielle Covington, 4.
Investigators concluded that the fire was caused by smoldering cigarettes, left behind by Liz Turner, the caregiver in the home, and her partner, Shana Moore, after they’d gone to the front porch for a smoke before heading to bed.
Cristina and Marielle Covington were Moore’s daughter and granddaughter and were staying at the home temporarily. The home’s other client, a 34-year-old man with autism, suffered serious injuries in the fire.
A grand jury indicted Turner and Moore on multiple felony charges. In a deal with prosecutors, Turner pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, negligent death of an at-risk adult, negligent child abuse causing death, and negligent injury to an at-risk adult; Moore pleaded guilty to negligent death of an at-risk adult and negligent injury to an at-risk adult.
Each woman entered a two-year diversion program which, if successfully completed, will see the charges dismissed.
But while fire inspectors cringed at the conditions in the home that made it difficult for those inside to escape – Cristina and Marielle Covington were found just steps from that deadbolted door, for example – there is little in the law that could have prevented it, 9Wants to Know found.
The reason: Host homes are designed to allow people with disabilities to live in a residential setting rather than an institution.
And that means that while there are requirements for smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, fire safety is left up to local fire codes. In this case, the Robb Street home was classified just like a single family home.
“Under those regulations,” Arvada Fire Marshal Kevin Ferry said, “there is no mandated life safety regulations.”
There is no requirement for alarm systems, fire sprinklers, or annual fire inspections in host homes.
The home at 6152 Robb St. was originally built in 1961.
In 1992 it was converted to a group home, where at least four people with disabilities can live. Group homes are licensed by the state and are subject to fire safety rules that go far beyond what’s expected in a single-family home. They have to be inspected regularly by the local fire department and have to have sophisticated fire alarm systems.
For years, Arvada fire inspectors checked the home annually. That continued even after Scott Parker, owner of Parker Personal Care Homes, bought the house in 2002 and converted it to a host home. Host homes typically have one or two residents – but can have as many as three in certain circumstances.
Even though the inspections were no longer required, firefighters kept going to the Robb Street home every year.
In 2013, an inspector went again – and got a different reception.
“He was met by the operator of the facility, who kindly reminded us that he didn't need to comply with fire code regulations, and that we had no authority to inspect,” Ferry said. “But he allowed us to do a walk through of the facility.”
During that walkthrough, the inspector, Rich Tenorio, pointed out that the fire alarm system, left behind from its days as a group home, was not working.
“He was aware that he had a fire alarm system and it wasn't operational and he informed us that he wasn't required to have an operational fire alarm because he was a host – he was operating a host home,” Ferry said.
Both Ferry and Tenorio told 9NEWS the person who met them was Scott Parker. Parker declined to answer 9NEWS’ questions about that interaction.
In a statement issued to 9NEWS, Parker said that the home was complying with all applicable rules.
But the rules for host homes are, by design, not terribly restrictive. The reason: Host homes are supposed to feel like a home, not an institution.
“They provide an alternative living opportunity for individuals to live in the community as opposed to in an institutional setting,” said Gretchen Hammer, Colorado’s Medicaid director. “Again, we think of these not as facilities but as community-based homes in which people can live, just like you or I live in a community home.”
Hammer acknowledged that nobody from the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing had inspected the home. Neither had anybody with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, another of the agencies responsible for part of the oversight of host homes. Also in the picture are Community Center Boards, which manage the care of people like the clients in the Robb Street home, and what are called Program Approved Service Agencies, or PASAs. In this case, the PASA was Parker Personal Care Homes.
Hammer said it is up to the community boards, case managers, and PASAs to make sure a host home is safe.
“It is our expectation that both the community center board as well as that agency are responsible for the safety and the well-being of the individual while receiving services from them,” Hammer said.
The state, she said, works with those other agencies “to ensure that they're doing the proper monitoring of the individuals who are receiving services, that the service plan is up to date, that visits have been made to that individual to check on the environment in which they're living, make sure it's not too restrictive and certainly make sure it's not unsafe.”
Maureen Welch, the mother of a 10-year-old with Down Syndrome who has devoted her life to advocating for people with disabilities, first heard about the Robb Street fire in news reports. Soon she was attending court hearings for the women accused of starting the fire and asking questions of various officials involved in the complex system that provides care to people like the Robb House clients.
“I had been having concerns about the host homes in general because of the safety parameters in the different rules and regulations that vary from fire district to fire district,” she said. “There is no one level of expectation across the state of Colorado for very vulnerable and often physically impacted individuals. When we're talking about life safety, it's concerning to me.”
She questioned the safety in host homes – of which there may be upwards of 2,000 in Colorado, although no one with the state could provide an accurate count because they aren’t licensed.
“The question is are they really safe?” Welch asked. “Is this a safe environment to put these individuals in? And should the state be raising the bar?”
In her mind, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
And she may have an ally.
State Rep. Dan Pabon, a Denver Democrat, called the Robb Street fire “the worst confluence of events that we could imagine” and said he believes legislation should be considered that would impose much more rigorous fire-safety standards on host homes.
“We need to make sure that the safety protections are in place and that these kinds of tragedies are prevented,” he said. “I think there's plenty of us who are concerned about, again, not only recognizing the extreme grief associated with this situation but making sure that it never happens again.
“If we can put some safeguards and accountability in place, that's the role of the state when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable populations.”
Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story:email@example.com or 303-871-1862.