No state advocate worked on site full-time to represent clients and investigate abuse at an Enid center for people with developmental disabilities where facility staff allegedly beat and choked residents last year. 

The Oklahoma Human Services’ Office of Client Advocacy investigates complaints of abuse and neglect at the 52-bed Robert M. Greer Center in Enid. But for more than seven years, the state advocate assigned to Greer clients didn’t work in-person on the campus full-time.

At least eight former Greer staff members have been criminally charged since November on allegations of caretaker abuse and are awaiting court hearings. There were reports of abuse dating back to at least 2021 at Greer, but State Department of Health investigators didn’t have enough evidence to prove abuse or neglect occurred, according to state surveys. Some injuries to clients weren’t reported to the state at all, or reports were delayed by days or weeks, according to state surveyors and court testimony. Police and state officials have said they are investigating whether some Greer staff refused to cooperate with abuse investigations or provided inaccurate information.

For 16 years, the Office of Client Advocacy maintained an office staffed with a full-time advocate to investigate client grievances and concerns on the campus that was home to the Greer Center and the former Northern Oklahoma Resource Center, another facility serving individuals with developmental disabilities, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Human Services said. The Resource Center buildings shut down in 2016, and there was limited office space inside of Greer, the agency said. The advocacy office also closed in 2016.

The agency said in an emailed statement to The Frontier that a state advocate still had the sole job responsibility of advocating for Greer clients and “maintained a physical presence at the facility no less than two to three days per week.” 

“These efforts are motivated by no reason other than to protect these individuals to the best of the agency’s ability within the resources available to it,” a statement reads. 

A 1980 aerial photo of the campus of the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center, formerly called the Enid State School. The Robert M. Greer Center is still on the campus. Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Courtesy

Oklahoma Human Services said the agency is only required to maintain offices at state-run facilities like the former Northern Oklahoma Resource Center. Since the state contracts with the private, for-profit company Liberty of Oklahoma Corporation to manage Greer, the agency says it did not have to keep the advocacy office open after the other center closed. A Liberty of Oklahoma spokeswoman directed questions to Oklahoma Human Services.

State rules last revised in 2017 say the Office of Client Advocacy maintained an office at the Greer Center. But the agency says the requirement does not apply because the Greer Center is no longer a state-operated facility. 

Oklahoma Human Services’ current contract with Liberty of Oklahoma signed in July 2022 states that the Office of Client Advocacy was expected to assign a full-time advocate to the Greer Center to attend staff meetings and investigate allegations of maltreatment on a daily basis. 

RoseAnn Duplan, a policy specialist with the Oklahoma Disability Law Center, said various systems of oversight were put in place for individuals with developmental disabilities following a settlement agreement from a lawsuit filed against a facility for individuals with developmental disabilities in the 1980s. But policies have been “relaxed or ignored” over time, she said. 

“We think it is clear that the abuse that was allowed to run rampant in the Greer facility was a direct result of the agencies charged with oversight not following the policies that were put in place to protect the residents,” Duplan said. 

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An in-person advocate is crucial at facilities like Greer, said Diana McCalment, a parent who worked for years for better services for people with developmental disabilities. Many residents have intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and may be blind or nonverbal, she said. Some clients could struggle to send an email outlining a problem to an advocate who isn’t there in-person. 

“If there is no one there to be the eyes and ears for (families), then it is a seriously misguided and poorly constructed security system for the welfare of the clients,” McCalment said. 

In a deposition filed as part of a lawsuit against Liberty of Oklahoma, a former Greer Center staffer said she worked with the advocate from the Office of Client Advocacy who was at the facility “at least once a week, maybe every two weeks, but monthly for sure.” The advocate sat in on team meetings, sometimes by video conference call, the former staffer said. 

A former employee, who is named as “Jane Doe 2” in the lawsuit, is suing Liberty of Oklahoma for emotional distress. The lawsuit claims the former Greer employee faced retaliation from other staffers after she reported abuse at the facility, and her concerns about abuse and neglect were dismissed. Liberty and administrators have denied the allegations, and the case is still pending in Oklahoma County District Court. A spokeswoman for Oklahoma Human Services said in an emailed statement that it was “reasonable to question the accuracy of that testimony.” 

State and local officials at a 2021 groundbreaking ceremony for new buildings on the Greer campus, including former Oklahoma Human Services Director Justin Brown, center, and long-time Greer Center Administrator Hugh Sage, right. Courtesy

The former employee also described in court documents that investigations into potential abuse were hindered because Greer staff would provide false information about injuries to the state or delay reporting until injuries had healed. Staff “did not like” the state advocate and weren’t honest with her, the former employee said in the deposition.

Staff at Greer are required to document any time a client has a serious or suspicious injury, according to the state’s contract with Liberty of Oklahoma. Depending on the severity of the issue, Greer administrators are supposed to submit those documents to the state. The on-site presence of a state advocate could sometimes help to determine whether the state should open an investigation, the contract says.

The former employee said in her deposition that supervisors would have staff rewrite reports to “make them worded the way they wanted it” to prevent employees from getting in trouble. A Liberty of Oklahoma spokeswoman said in a statement to The Frontier that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

The former employee described finding bruises and other injuries on clients and reporting possible abuse, false documentation and toxic workplaces issues to supervisors. 

When police began investigating abuse allegations at Greer last June, an Enid detective learned the Office of Client Advocacy had already investigated many of the alleged instances of abuse but couldn’t confirm “due to the staff at the Greer Center not cooperating,” the detective wrote in a 2023 court affidavit. 

Oklahoma Human Services denied last year that it had any difficulty conducting interviews with victims or staff, or getting case records. Human Services Director Deb Shropshire said at a press conference in December that part of the agency’s ongoing investigation “may be to the accuracy of some of the information that was provided.” 

The state reopened the on-site office at Greer in November, when allegations of abuse became public, and an advocate has worked full-time, in-person at Greer since then, the agency said. Incidents reported at Greer gave the Office of Client Advocacy a chance to review its policies and “put in place modifications that will allow investigators to more quickly make contact with vulnerable adults, guardians, and other relevant parties,” Oklahoma Human Services said in a statement. 

A push to move an oversight office after abuse allegations

In response to the allegations of abuse at Greer, some state lawmakers are pushing to move the Office of Client Advocacy to the State Department of Health

Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, one of the authors of Senate Bill 1709, said there has been “almost no accountability” for the office after what allegedly happened at Greer. Moving the department can be one step in changing the reporting and investigations process, Echols said. 

But several key lawmakers who focus on human services and developmental disability issues said moving the office to the Health Department wouldn’t solve reporting problems or prevent abuse. The Health Department is already required to investigate complaints of abuse at Greer. 

“We’re just moving the fox to another hen house,” said Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, when debating against the bill, which passed 61-30 on the House floor at the end of April. “Moving them from one (agency) to another is an improvement, however I do not feel it is in the long-term best interest of the Oklahomans that we are obligated to serve.” 

The Health Department investigated Greer on complaints of abuse or neglect in 2021 and 2022, according to state records. But inspectors coudn’t gather enough evidence to substantiate the allegations, including complaints that the facility failed to ensure clients were free from physical and sexual abuse, clients not being able to make private phone calls, and clients not having the chance to file a grievance without fear of retaliation.

One resident told surveyors in an interview during a May 2021 investigation l they thought a staff member tried to strangle them, and another resident said a staffer hit them in the face. But the resident said what seemed like a choke may have been a safety hold, and the other resident said they sometimes lied, including “multiple prank calls to 911.”

Health Department investigators didn’t find enough evidence to prove other abuse complaints investigated in 2022 because investigators didn’t personally observe any abuse when they were at the facility, according to state records.

The State Department of Health has also battled staffing shortages in recent years to keep the surveyors who inspect and investigate allegations of abuse at nursing homes and other care facilities.

In response to a federal audit released in January that found Oklahoma could do better to ensure nursing homes comply with federal safety requirements, the Health Department said staff turnover and an increase in high-priority complaints were hampering routine inspection timelines. A federal report released in 2023 said Oklahoma had a 45% vacancy rate in surveyor positions in 2022. 

The Health Department told The Frontier in February it had increased staffing and at the time had 57 surveyors and only two open positions. A Health Department spokeswoman said if the Office of Client Advocacy is transitioned to the Health Department, the agency would be “confident in our ability to execute this important function successfully to protect some of the most vulnerable Oklahomans.” 

Some lawmakers wanted the Office of Client Advocacy to move to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, which is independent from any licensing or current oversight of the Greer Center. But Echols said the Attorney General’s Office isn’t big enough to absorb the advocacy office with its dozens of employees and supervisors.

Rep. Ellyn Hefner, D-Oklahoma City, said the Legislature should focus on things like improving the quality of direct care jobs and training programs to help prevent abuse.

While lawmakers debated moving the office, a temporary advocate general stepped in after former Office of Client Advocacy Advocate General John Dewey resigned in mid-March. The Department of Human Services declined to comment on the context surrounding his resignation, citing personnel privacy. 

The bill was sent to the governor’s office for final approval earlier this week.

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