The Tip of the Iceberg?
The LA Times reports that police issuing an arrest warrant for a DUI in San Bernardino discovered an “unlicensed group home” in which 22 elderly and mentally ill people were housed, if you can call it that. They lived in converted chicken coops, urinated in buckets and were subjected to countless abuses, all while surrounded by razor wire. The Times reports on the conditions as experienced by Trevor Castro, a resident and the indirect reason the police were led to discover this “facility.”
The bleak compound was surrounded by a cinder-block wall topped with coils of jagged razor wire. He lived in a converted chicken coop with no plumbing and a bucket for a toilet. He said he was kicked, had a glass broken on his face by a staff member and had cans of cigarette butts dumped on him.
Despite frequent police visits to the property and neighbors’ repeated reports of screaming and crying from within the walls of the compound, no one ever bothered to investigate further.
Apparently the owner of the property, Pensri Sophar Dalton, who residents call “Mama Sophar” has many more, conceivably like this one. Records show she has 13 different addresses and previously had one closed down due to code violations. While this is just one of many “homes” she runs, she is apparently just one of many running such facilities, so the problem is clearly larger than we know and are likely to know any time soon.
“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” said City Atty. James Penman, who said Saturday that local and state agencies will be investigating the case.
“Still, the discovery of the house is not unusual and neither is the squalor. Unlicensed group homes are relatively common in San Bernardino.”
“San Bernardino has a good deal of cheap housing, and people who are unscrupulous have bought a fair amount of those houses and turned them into these facilities, and we come across them by accident,” Penman said. “This is among the worst I’ve seen, but I have seen worse.
Dalton was arrested on 16 felony counts of elder abuse and faces civil charges such as running an unlicensed “board-and-care” facility. I don’t know what the penalties are for such charges, but I can only hope they are severe. Fortunately for her, whatever she encounters at the hands of the justice system won’t even approach what she’s done to others.
I can’t help but notice that of the 22 residents, the article doesn’t mention charges against her for abuses endured by those labeled “mentally ill,” only the 16 elderly residents. That means that six people have been abused in the same manner without charges filed on their behalf. I can only hope that the charges are forthcoming because the implications are both terrifying and disgusting if we can look at 22 human beings abused, crammed into chicken coops and living in squalor and decide that for six of them, by way of their being diagnosed as mentally ill, it is in some way a lesser offense. Frankly, I’m not that hopeful as I can’t imagine why some charges would be pursued and not others — especially in such a pick-and-choose manner.
While it’s clear that the blame for these abuses rests squarely on Dalton and her employees and that local and state investigating agencies have dropped the ball, this story indicates a bigger problem. This could not happen in a society that places value on its own family and community members and it points directly at our throwaway culture. If you showed up to share stories with your grandmother and she lived in a chicken coop — if you went to play cards with your troubled brother and saw cuts on his face and a bucket of piss by his door, it wouldn’t take long until you were holding someone accountable. How does something like this happen to 22 people in this facility alone and countless others without even one concerned friend or family member taking notice? While the abuse can and should be blamed on Dalton and company, the neglect is widespread and no authority under the law can correct that.