Operators of homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities would be required to have safe exits and working fire extinguishers – and undergo state safety inspections every two years – under legislation introduced this week by two Denver Democrats.
The aim of the bill is to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that unfolded in Arvada on May 14, 2016, when a fire started by carelessly discarded cigarettes took three lives – including that of a woman with severe disabilities who lived in the home.
A months-long 9Wants to Know investigation found that the home where Tanya Bell and two others died was a firefighter’s nightmare of blocked exits, missing smoke alarms and barred windows – but that state law didn’t require anyone to inspect it.
The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Dan Pabon and state Sen. Irene Aguilar, would require new housing standards for so-called “host homes” – where three or fewer people with disabilities live with their caregivers.
Currently, state law does not impose any inspection requirements for host homes – and, in fact, operators can deny firefighters the right to enter the dwellings.
As written, the measure would place several new requirements on the operators of host homes:
- They would have to notify the local fire department of any resident who needs help evacuating – and the location of that person’s room.
- They would be prohibited from refusing any firefighter access to inspect the home.
- They would be subjected to a safety inspection every two years – and would have to demonstrate that smoke alarms are functioning and doors and windows aren’t blocked.
Those requirements hit directly at the tragedy in Arvada at a host home operated by Parker Personal Care Homes.
Late the night of May 13, 2016, Mary “Liz” Turner, the caregiver at the home, and her partner, Shana “Dee” Moore, discarded cigarettes into a small table on the corner of the front porch and went to bed. A couple hours later, the smoldering cigarettes ignited, burned up the front of the house and entered the main living area.
Bell, a 39-year-old with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities, perished along with Moore’s daughter, Christina Covington, 23, and granddaughter, Marielle Covington, 4. A 34-year-old man with autism who lived in the home was seriously injured.
Bell, who used a wheelchair, lived in a bedroom built into the home’s garage. Her only exit was back into the main living area in the home, where the fire was concentrated, and she was found slumped in her wheelchair in her room.
Christina and Marielle Covington became disoriented in the thick smoke and sought refuge in a bathroom just feet from a door to the backyard that was deadbolted shut. No one knew where the key was.
“I delved into this based on your reports and the investigation that I was presented, and I was dumbfounded to believe that the way we had this set up is to let private contractors essentially enforcing safety laws,” Pabon told 9Wants to Know.
A separate investigation by Rocky Mountain PBS uncovered cases of mistreatment, abuse, neglect and negligence in Colorado host homes.
The bill has been assigned to the House Public Health Care & Human Service Committee. Pabon said he expects easy passage.
“We’ve got a lot of bipartisan support,” Pabon said. “Again, this isn’t a Republican or a Democratic solution. This is a Colorado solution for a vulnerable population that we need to protect, and so I think we’ll have broad bipartisan support and I feel like we can send this to the governor soon.”
Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.