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Welcome home, sanitarium: who regulates Texas’ 4,000 unlicensed mental health facilities

Submitted by on February 14, 2012 – 9:00 am3 Comments
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Image appropriated from Texas Tribune

By Alex Wukman

An ambulance and four HPD cruisers roll up to a non-descript lemon yellow faded-to-almost-white building on Branard, a quiet side street in Montrose. The two or three cars doubling back down their interrupted shortcut doubtlessly think they’ve stumbled onto the scene of an overdose/drug bust. The only detail that doesn’t fit that assumption, a detail all too easily overlooked in the midst of a panicky U-turn, is the long handicapped railing extending from the building. The railing is the only clue that the building is more than just another post-war Faux Victorian in a rapidly gentrifying Inner Loop neighborhood.

The yellowish-white building serves as a dormitory for a little know mental health facility with the generic name of the Mental Health Co-op, or MHC. The primary offices and residential treatment facility of MHC are located a block north of the Branard building at 503 and 501 Sul Ross. Like many mental health facilities, MHC keeps a relatively low profile—a feat in and of itself since MHC’s primary offices have been in the same location for over 30 years. However, in that time it hasn’t always been known as the Mental Health Co-op. According to MHC’s website and staff the facility was founded in New York in the early 1960s by Grover Shaunty before he moved it to the Sul Ross location in 1980. Shaunty, who has a Masters of Social Work, claims to have lived in Montrose for 74 years and to have been treating the mentally ill in Texas, New York and Washington State for 53 years.

Despite Shaunty’s claims of longevity in the community the earliest mention of someone named Grover Shaunty isn’t from Houston. Shaunty’s name first appears in a listing in the December 15, 1963 edition of the Big Spring Herald from Big Spring, TX. In the listing a person named Grover Shaunty is said to have participated in a week of prayer sponsored by Big Spring’s First Baptist Church. A few years later Shaunty’s name pops up in the minutes of an August 1967 meeting of the Austin City Council. Shaunty requests, and receives by a vote of 3-2, $40,000 from the City of Austin to fund treatment for Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

Less than a year later, March 1968, Shaunty’s name makes a second appearance in the minutes of the Austin City Council. At the March meeting the person named Grover Shaunty is helping to spearhead the committee behind Austin’s application for the Federal Government’s Model Cities Program, one of the initiatives that came out of LBJ’s Great Society plan. In September of 1968 Shaunty appears again before Austin City Council to discuss recent developments in Austin’s Model Cities Program.

The first time Shaunty’s name is mentioned in relation to Houston or Harris County comes in the form of a lawsuit filed in April 1983 in the 133rd District Court of Harris County. In the suit Dr. Howard D. Sirak, of Columbus Ohio, alleged that Shaunty borrowed $4,500 from him and was late in paying it back. Court documents show that, since Shaunty failed to respond to the suit, a default judgment ordering Shaunty to pay the money plus interest and attorney’s fees was entered.

Shaunty’s lack of appearance at the lawsuit could be explained by the fact that just two months later he was being served with divorce papers by Kathryn Ann Shaunty. A review of court documents shows that from June 1983 to February 1984 Shaunty was involved in three separate Family Court cases, including one that appears to be a custody dispute. The first non-court related mention of Shaunty in Houston comes from a 1985 Houston Chronicle article in which Shaunty is quoted on the subject of teenagers and Satanism. The Chronicle reports there were concerns over a purported link between “Satanic beliefs” and the murder of Dennis Keith Meddler, 19. At the time, police were operating under the theory that Medler was lured to a cemetery by five teenagers, aged 16 to 19-years-old, who beat Medler with a pipe, choked him with a scarf and then stabbed him in the eye with the pipe. The police also stated that after his death Medler was stabbed and slashed with a pocketknife. Aside from statements about the suspects behavior prior to allegedly committing the murder, the Chronicle article doesn’t indicate what led law enforcement to the conclusion that Medler’s killing had anything to do with the occult.

In the article Shaunty, who is identified as working almost exclusively with teens, is credited with saying that experimentation with drugs is “usually coupled with a teen’s interest in Satanic beliefs since both are forms of rebellion.” The mother of one of the teens accused of the murder said her son smoked marijuana, wore a black wizard’s hat, painted his face with mascara and chanted as he walked around the apartment. She assumed that the chants were Satanic in nature, although the Chronicle doesn’t indicate whether he was chanting incantations or just choruses from Judas Priest records.  A year later Shaunty was once again called on by the Chronicle to offer his expert opinion on teen drug use.

In 1986 15-year-old Paul Amyx overdosed after huffing Freon. In the Chronicle article on the case, Cathy Gordon describes how Paul’s parents were distraught by their loss and saddened to learn that it could have been prevented if they’d only known about involuntary commitment. Shaunty, who is identified as a social worker at a private psychiatric drug-treatment program called the Houston Clinic and claims to have “helped commit more than 200 drug-dependent children,” tells parents throughout Houston that they don’t have to let drug dependent children make decisions about their care.

His next mention in the media comes in a 1987 Texas Monthly article about companies profiting off of the AIDS crisis. In the Big Business of AIDS Shaunty, who identifies himself as a psychotherapist with 29 years of experience, tells Patricia Sharpe about his plans to open a private AIDS residence in Houston. He explains how he wasn’t worried about making a profit and that he was planning on funding the facility with earnings from his work at the Houston Clinic and the dividends from his own treatment center A Counseling Place. He also said that he wouldn’t be providing medical care, just room and board and he was planning on charging $1,200-$2,272 adjusted for inflation—per month.

For Shaunty money and courts would come to define most of the early 1990s. And, like most things in the 1990s, Shaunty’s court case had roots in the late 1980s. In July 1989 Shaunty approached Ethel Bowman, the mother of one of the residents of A Counseling Place, about a $40,000 loan. Court documents state that Shaunty claimed he needed the money to “improve the financial statement” of the facility so he would qualify for federal funds that would allow him to expand the operation.

Sometime after Bowman cut him a personal check for $40,000 Shaunty gave her a promissory note saying that he would repay the loan, plus interest, in 90 days. In October 1989 he gave Bowman a $1,500 check to cover some of the interest. Court records say he gave her another interest payment in January 1990 and the check bounced. Bowman did what most people do when they’ve been given a bad check; try to talk to the person who gave them the worthless piece of paper.  And Shaunty did what most people do when they owe someone money—let them know you know you owe them money. Or in the legalese language of lawsuits: Shaunty reaffirmed, in writing, his obligation to repay the debt owed to Bowman in February and April of 1990. A few days after the second time Shaunty told Bowman he hadn’t forgotten about the money she went and did what rich people do when they’re owed money—she got a lawyer.

Bowman’s lawyer sued Shaunty for $55,000, the full amount plus interest and attorney’s fees. Before the suit even made it trial Bowman’s lawyer filed motions to freeze Shaunty’s bank accounts and go after his cars. About six weeks after the suit was filed it came up for trial and Shaunty was a no show. A default judgment was entered against Shaunty awarding Bowman the full amount, and giving her the right to go over Shaunty’s financials with a fine-toothed comb. After the judgment was handed down Shaunty made sporadic payments to Bowman—$1,200 in September 1990, $20,000 that December another $4,300 in January 1991. Shaunty paid over $35,000 to Bowman throughout most of 1991, the only problem was most of what he paid only went to the interest on the debt. After the payments stopped, Bowman’s lawyer sent over some fact-finding documents.

The documents asked for an overview of his personal financials, as well as those of A Counseling Place. And the records indicate that the only time Shaunty initiated any hearing during the whole four years Bowman was trying to get her money back was after he was presented with documents compelling him to reveal his financial information. He then failed to appear at the hearing he requested. Almost two full years after Bowman was awarded her $40,000—plus interest, attorney’s fees and court costs—Shaunty still hadn’t paid up. And Shaunty’s lack of payment pushed A Counseling Place into two years of receivership. Just four years after paying off Bowman, and getting A Counseling Place out of receivership, Shaunty decided to try his hand at the restaurant business.

A gossipy Houston Business Journal column quotes a very recalcitrant Shaunty as saying that he had been in the food service industry for 39 years and that he owned and operated a “home-delivery food service.”  The article goes on to say that Shaunty was thinking of turning a former restaurant on West Alabama into an off-campus kitchen for his food delivery service before family and friends convinced to open a cheap comfort food restaurant. Shaunty decided to name the place Podmore’s, after an English short story called Podmore’s Thatch about an older woman who leaves London to open a restaurant in a mythical town. Despite a remarkably low price point of $5 to $6 for staples like meatloaf and spaghetti and meatballs Podmore’s didn’t fare well.

One of the only records of Podmore’s that exists is a $50,000 slip-and-fall lawsuit filed against Shaunty and the restaurant by a “business invitee” named Ana Lozano in November 2000. In the suit Lozano alleged that she was at Podmore’s in 1998 when she was injured. Unlike in the two previous lawsuits, Shaunty showed up to defend himself against Lozano’s accusations and he hired an attorney. In April 2002 a judgment was issued for Shaunty that absolved him of having to pay Lozano but also required her to pay all the court cost.

What celebration Shaunty had was short lived. In May of 2002 he was sued again for failing to pay back money he had borrowed. This time it was for an unpaid loan of about $39,000. A few months after the suit was filed it was dropped with Shaunty agreeing to pay back the principal plus the interest. For most of the 2000s Shaunty faced a near constant stream of lawsuits, and more than a few of them alleged he had failed to pay what he owed. In 2002 he was sued for breach of contract for failing to pay $100,000 in rent to Janet Freidman. As in previous lawsuits a default judgment was issued when Shaunty failed to show up and his facility was sent into receivership for the second time in a decade. A little less than a year after A Counseling Place re-emerged from receivership in 2004 Shaunty was sued; again, over $40,000 he’d borrowed to start Podmore’s. After three years of lingering around the courthouse that suit was dismissed in 2008 for want of prosecution.

In 2007 the State of Texas stepped in and sued Shaunty for what looked like the last time. Surprisingly the lawsuit brought by the State had nothing to do with Shaunty’s spotty history of repaying his debts and everything to do with him operating an unlicensed mental health facility. Apparently, over all the years that Shaunty had been running A Counseling Place, and despite it going through multiple receiverships, no one had ever thought to check and see if the facility needed a license to operate.

In the court documents the State’s Department of Aging and Disability Services said that, under the law at the time, Shaunty had to have a license to operate. Shaunty responded that he didn’t need a license to house, counsel and dispense medication for over 20 people. After lining up witnesses and entering in various treatment records detailing how many patients suffered from schizophrenia and how many suffered from bi-polar disorder, in September 2008 the State was able to secure an agreed upon order that permanently prohibited Shaunty from operating an assisted living facility without a license. And then the State Legislature met.

In 2009 the Texas Legislature passed H.B 216, a bill that was designed to make it easier for assisted living facilities and adult boarding houses like the Mental Health Co-op to be regulated. When it was passed the bill’s sponsor, former State Senator and possible gubernatorial candidate, Elliot Shapleigh celebrated it as a triumph. In a press release about the bill Shapleigh wrote, “So often, the elderly, veterans and those with mental illness end up in boarding homes where unscrupulous owners take advantage. This bill will deliver protections for these vulnerable Texans.”

Despite its good intentions, H.B. 216 was flawed from the beginning. One of the biggest impacts of the bill was that instead of strengthening regulations on assisted living facilities at a State level, or appropriating funds for more inspectors, it created a framework that encouraged cities to take on the job of regulating so-called boarding homes. The only problem was that framework didn’t come with any money attached to it. Officer Douglas Anders of HPD’s Mental Health Unit put it succinctly when he wrote in an e-mail that “the State tried to rope in the unlicensed facilities, but were unable to due to size of the issue and a lack of funds.” Anders goes on to explain that with the passage of H.B. 216 cities have the right to create ordinances to address locally what had previously been the responsibility the state, but without any additional funding it’s a slow process.

And in Houston the responsibility of doing the legwork necessary to create an effective ordinance to govern the nearly 250 unlicensed assisted living facilities/adult boarding homes/mental health facilities, or whatever terminology lawmakers decided to use, isn’t being done by the City Health Department or members of City Council, it’s being spearheaded by law enforcement. Anders wrote that because the officers of the Mental Health Unit are partnered with mental health professionals from Harris County’s Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority they are charged with responding to people in crisis. As such they “go into many of these locations on a daily or weekly basis.” Anders went on to state that, because of their familiarity with the issue, the City felt that the Mental Health Unit was uniquely positioned to act as “the ‘gate keeper’ in ordinance development.”

Until the City adopts an ordinance regulating facilities such as the Mental Health Co-op little can be done. As it sits now the City of Houston’s Health and Human Services Department, like so many other agencies, has no authority over unlicensed facilities. When asked about regulations and inspections for the Mental Health Co-op, and facilities like it, City Health Department spokesperson Kathy Barton laughed.

“The City Health Department doesn’t inspect mental health facilities. I’m sure everyone would love for us to get involved, but it’s not what we do…we don’t have any regulatory authority,” said Barton. Barton estimated that regulating mental health facilities is “a State or Federal issue,” but according to Allison Lowery at the State of Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, the agency charged with performing bi-annual inspections of unlicensed assisted living facilities, the only thing the State can do is inspect to see if they need a license.

“As long as the residents don’t require personal care there’s nothing we can do,” said Lowery. She went on to explain that under Texas law ‘personal care’ is defined as needing help with basic things like getting dressed and eating. Lowery said that the State “just doesn’t have any regulations that apply” to facilities that cater to higher functioning individuals—those who can wash and feed themselves. The current underfunded, under-regulated patchwork nature of Texas’ mental health system is a crisis that’s been over a decade in the making. Draconian budget cuts have put Texas squarely dead last in the nation when it comes to mental health spending. The U.S. Census Bureau ranks Texas 50th when it comes to overall mental health spending and the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that Texas’ per capita mental health spending of $38.38 per person is the second worst in the nation.

The lack of funds has led some people, like Barton, to label Texas a “non-provider state” when it comes to mental health and others to woefully note that the largest provider of mental health services in the state is the Texas prison system. The main problem with relying on prisons to treat the mentally ill is that prisons aren’t designed to do it. Jailers aren’t trained mental health professionals; they can’t distinguish between schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.  And a lack of beds at one of the few state hospitals means that those found incompetent to stand trial can wait in jail for over a year simply for being mentally ill.

For many families the burden of taking care of someone with mental illness is too much and the lack of a readily available public option has led to an explosion of unlicensed facilities. There is currently no way to tell how many facilities like the Mental Health Co-op exist in Texas, and because of the lack of hard data estimates vary wildly. A 2009 report from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services stated that the authors could only identify 845, and offered the qualifier that that was probably on the low end. Unnamed experts speaking to the Associated Press in 2006 estimated that there could be as many as 4,000 unlicensed assisted living facilities that could be housing as many as 60,000 people. Even the agency that is nominally in charge of seeing if a facility needs a license has no idea just how many facilities there are. Lowery said that the Department of Aging and Disability Services didn’t have any information about the number of facilities in the state “simply because we don’t regulate them.”

The lack of oversight and regulations is not lost on the people who live near facilities like the Mental Health Co-op. Jason Ginsburg is the president of the First Montrose Commons, the neighborhood that houses MHC, neighborhood association. Over the last few years tensions between Neighborhood Association members and MHC have risen considerably. Ginsburg said that “part of the problem is that businesses like the Mental Health Co-op are substantially unregulated, and a lot of their money comes from private individuals.” While deficit hawks may be pleased that the cost of caring for the mentally is being picked up by a patient’s family instead of by the state, the fact that the vast majority of for-profit-facilities don’t receive Medicare or Medicaid increases the difficulty of tracking them. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General, out of the estimated 250 facilities in Houston less than 25 receive government funds.

Ginsburg went on to state that it’s “the lack of information and government oversight” that his organization objects to, “not the mere presence of such businesses and their patients.” Shaunty claims that the tensions in the neighborhood are the result of gentrification. In an e-mail he cited recent demographic shifts in the neighborhood as younger, more affluent families moved in. Families that he said, “do not like transsexuals on the corner nor do they like the visibility of the mentally ill living in this neighborhood.”

Marie Bruns, one of the neighborhood residents, doesn’t think her problems with MHC stem from the gentrification narrative that so many in Montrose like to fall back on. In an e-mail Bruns described an incident that occurred in the summer of 2011 when she was out walking her dog. She says that on her walk she ran into a family she’s friends with and she did the neighborly thing and stopped to talk. It was at that point that shit, allegedly, got real. Bruns writes that while she and her neighbors were chatting “a strange man with wild long hair started running towards me and making strong sexual advances and screaming sexual words.”

She goes on to state that her “male neighbor tried to tell him to go away, but he did not listen, instead we all decided as a group to run away quickly into a neighbor’s house.” Bruns continues describing a scene that seems ripped from the opening pages of a self-defense manual. “The man continued to chase us making threatening remarks and more sexual advances and the husband screamed at him to leave him alone and the man got very aggressive and wanted to start fighting my friends.”

Dewey Paris, MHC’s clinical director, offered a different perspective on the incident, painting it less as a moment of potential sexual assault and more of a simple misunderstanding. Without offering any names Paris said that “a group of neighborhood residents were out for a walk and stopped under a tree for some shade when they encountered one of our male residents.” Paris goes on to say that a brief verbal altercation ensued in which “one of the ladies told our resident that he ‘needed to leave’ and he told her ‘I don’t have to leave I live here.’” Shaunty claims that, as far as he knows, in the 30-plus-years that his facility has been in operation there “have only been two incidents where a resident in one of our units was aggressive towards the property” of a neighborhood resident. He goes on to state that in both incidents the MHC residents claimed they were taunted by people in the neighborhood and that in both instances the patient was discharged and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He also says that, as far as he knows, there hasn’t been any incident involving a resident of MHC exhibiting “aggression toward any person in the neighborhood.”

HPD’s dispatch logs tell a slightly different story. Over a two year period, from January 2010 to January 2012, officers were called out 170 times to the two main MHC buildings, over 100 times to 503 Sul Ross alone. The calls ranged from the mundane, reports of suspicious persons or vehicles, to the exotic, three reports of poisoning. Buried in the dispatch are reports of 14 assaults, one in-progress stabbing, one sexual assault and one “dead man.”

Despite Shaunty’s assurances, many neighborhood residents don’t feel safe walking the streets. Shaunty claims that much of that feeling of insecurity isn’t because of his patients but because of the way HPD responds to crisis calls. He explained that prior to 2008 MHC staff would take a resident in crisis to a local emergency room to be evaluated by medical personnel. Then in late 2008 “the city changed the way crisis intervention was to be handled.  They instituted a Crisis Intervention Team composed of a police officer and a trained mental health person who were to be called and who came in marked cars and in uniform to evaluate residents [in crisis] in their living units,” said Shaunty.

He goes on to say that this change led to a dramatic increase in both the visibility, and the amount, of police officers into the neighborhood. Shaunty claims that the dramatic increase in the police presence in the neighborhood that residents perceive is just that, only perception. “There is no increase in the number and type of mentally ill person being cared for, only the visibility of crisis services to that population,” said Shaunty. He went on to say that MHC has “always had the same percentage of clients who experience crisis during treatment.” However, before 2008 those crises used to be “just more quietly detected and resolved.”

Another issue that causes concern amongst residents is the size of the MHC campus. Bruns alleges that the facility “has taken advantage of our FMC environment” and slowly “infiltrated the entire district very silently.” “We counted the number of houses and rentals that they now occupy and it is scary,” said Bruns.  Shaunty states that aside from 501 and 503 Sul Ross, the two addresses that appear on almost all of the paperwork associated with MHC throughout its 30-year history, his program “operates in individual living units in 12 different [apartment] complexes in the Sul Ross/Branard area.”

Paris said that, on average, the facility treats around 50 individuals every month. Shaunty explained that “each resident, or every two residents, have an independent residential address” and because the 50-or-so patients treated by MHC all have different, independent, addresses the facility does not “qualify for group home living.” When asked about the legality of MHC Officer Anders stated that “Shaunty is totally legal, as for ethical that’s another question.”

3 Comments »

  • Greg says:

    I always had the impression Montrose was a tolerant area. At one time many of the people fell under what was called a mental health disorder before caring therapists and medical professionals got it changed in the 1970s.
    Show proof Shaunty is doing bad things, if you want him out of your exclusive neighborhood.

  • houbc says:

    “transsexuals on the corner…”

    Charming. The neighborhood association doesn’t really represent the neighborhood, just homeowners. Ginsburg doesn’t mention that 77% of FMC residents are single renters (not affluent nuclear families).

    Montrose may be on a winding path to gentrification, but those who foolishly end up not liking what they bargained for can still get out.

  • D says:

    PLACE IS TOTAL SCAM, THEY ABUSE THEIR CLIENTS, AND FALSIFY PAPERS,

    THEY ABUSE THE PEOPLE WHO CAN NOT DEFEND THEMSELVES

    BUYER BEWARE!

    TOTAL SCAM OF A PLACE VERY VERY VERY SHADDY

    IT IS UNDER INVESTIGATION OF FBI

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