By Josh Peterson, Editor
Taking care of severely disabled people has been Joyce Harris’ life.
For 33 years she has been involved in taking care of her severely disabled daughter – Jessica Harris. She has worked as a social worker for Stones River Center, an agency that provides services to individuals with disabilities, and she has a degree in social work from Middle Tennessee State University.
Over the past three years she has operated Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, Inc., an agency for supported living of disabled people in Manchester. But that could soon end after the state terminated her contract.
The agency, contracted through the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, will end on Oct. 15 after a letter from department commissioner James M. Henry declaring that the state is terminating Harris’ contract for “convenience.”
“There was no warning, nothing,” Harris told the Manchester Times. “There was no warning if they were unhappy … no plan of improvement. They just asked me to come into the regional office in Nashville and they handed me this letter and that was it.
“They didn’t say you done this or that or not done this or that. They wouldn’t talk. I tried to get them to talk.”
Harris’ agency has served as many as eight disabled individuals at one time. Currently she is serving two, including her daughter. The termination of the contract means her daughter – who suffers from a severe case of cerebral palsy that leaves her unable to talk, walk or use her hands – will have to move to another provider in another town and away from her family.
“She is devastated and afraid,” said Harris. “She doesn’t want to leave. She grew up here. Her friends and family are here. I took her to the doctor [Tuesday] because she is crying all the time and not eating.”
According to Jessica Harris’ doctor, Dr. Joseph Richard Thomasson, moving her could be “detrimental to her health.”
“This would be detrimental to Jessica’s health and well-being,” Thomasson wrote in a letter to the DIDD. “Jessica does not process the mental capability to understand what is happening. Since she does not have the ability to understand politics, she will believe she is being abandoned by her mother who is provider.”
Terminated for convenience, not cause
The letter given to Harris and signed by Henry from the DIDD says, “pursuant to applicable terms in the contract listed above, it is the decision of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to terminate for convenience the contractual agreement between you and DIDD. Therefore, effective Oct. 15, 2012, our contractual relationship concerning the services you render on our behalf, community based day services, employment support, supported living, personal assistance and individual transportation services, will be ended.”
The Manchester Times obtained a copy of the letter given to Harris, dated Sept. 14. It also cites contract guidelines that read, “The state may terminate this agreement without cause for any reason. Said termination shall not be deemed a breach of contract by the state…”
Henry told the Times these decisions are not made lightly.
“When you get into why [a contract is terminated], you get into legal problems,” said Henry, who was appointed to his position in March of 2011. “This is not something we take lightly or do often. At this point, we think it is in the best interest of the two people served and the state’s best interest to terminate this contract for convenience.”
According to the DIDD, only three contracts have been terminated in Henry’s tenure. All three were terminated for convenience and none with cause.
Quality Assurance survey shows discrepancies
In a recent Quality Assurance Survey performed by the state, Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep earned a performance rating of “significant concern.” Only one other agency out of 46 that provide most of the same services as Harris’ was tagged with “significant concerns.” There is one more category below “significant concern” and that is “serious deficiencies.” The highest rating is “exceptional performance.”
Henry wouldn’t say if that survey directly affected the agency’s contract.
“Hypothetically, if you have a survey that has significant concerns, that is a serious issue with the state,” Henry said.
When asked why the agency wasn’t terminated for cause if the DIDD had a reason, Henry cited legal reasons and the ability to save the state money that could be tied up in litigation.
“The contract says we have the right to terminate for convenience purposes,” Henry said. “We don’t really want to damage anyone’s reputation. And if you terminate with cause you end up going to court and having to prove what that cause is.”
Harris says the survey, which took place June 5, was tainted.
“Last year I got a fair [rating]. This year, because Dr. [Levi] Harris [with DIDD] and I had a heated conversation, it was a set up deal. They are lying. The survey wasn’t right. But there is nothing I can do about it.
“I appealed and I showed them on every point where they were wrong and it didn’t do me any good.”
The Times attempted to reach Dr. Harris but was redirected to the DIDD public relations department.
A copy of the Quality Assurance Survey obtained by the Manchester Times shows that Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep scored a 42 in 2011 for a “fair” rating. Scores for a “fair” rating range from 38-46. In 2012, the agency scored a 36 for “significant concerns.” Scores for “significant concerns” range from 28-36.
But Harris actually scored the same or better in all areas of the survey except for the final two areas: provider capabilities and qualifications, and administrative authority and financial accountability. In 2011, the agency scored a four and a six in those two categories, respectively. In 2012, it was scored a zero in both areas.
Local officials hope to intervene
Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman and State Representative Judd Matheny have now gotten involved. Norman sent a letter to Governor Bill Haslam asking him to intervene. Matheny is hoping to bring a resolution.
“I met with all concerned parties and I am in the process of hopefully bringing about a resolution,” said Matheny. “We don’t want to see the area lose this agency. It’s tough to get them started and the waiting list for these programs is very long.
“There is no lack of local support, that’s for sure.”
How it works
In Harris’ supported living program, grown individuals are basically given the freedom of their own home. In the case of her daughter Jessica Harris, she has her own home and can share it with up to two more individuals. Her daughter has her own customized bedroom and bathroom, living room, kitchen, a spare room for special equipment and more rooms for a roommate. The home is staffed 24/7 by nurses and caregivers hired by Harris and paid by TennCare.
“When I had eight I was taking care of I was staffing 30 people,” said Harris. “That brought a lot of jobs to this area. It was about a $500,000 impact and 84 percent of that goes into wages.”
Harris currently leases two homes for her agency. The individuals she provides for pay for their own food, rent and utilities with their disability checks.
“DIDD provides for care,” Harris said.
Those interested in having a family member sent to Harris’ agency must be approved by the state and, according to Harris, the waiting list is about 6,000 deep. Once approved, Harris is paid through TennCare based on the person’s level of need.
“I get so much per individual depending on the level of need,” she said. “My daughter requires one-on-one attention. She can’t be left alone. There can be people less severe where one caregiver takes care of two people. So it depends on the level of need.”
To contact Harris, call 931-224-7537. To contact the DIDD, call 615-231-5047.
Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is located at 308 Westwood Dr.
-Josh Peterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.