Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Family protests woman's care


One guardian accused of killing the other

By Sharon Turco
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Debra Rogers of Newport and her brother, Phil Daniels of Price Hill, head in to see a magistrate judge at the office of the Hamilton County Probate Court on Tuesday.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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A Hamilton County Probate Court investigator knew in October something was wrong at a Colerain Township home where a severely mentally retarded woman lived with two court-appointed guardians.

Tim Leigh even asked the county Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities to step in with an emergency intervention, which was denied.

For four months 63-year-old Jo Ann Walls was left in a dilapidated house overrun with animals and smelling of urine before the court ordered her into an MRDD group home.

Leigh's fear proved prophetic in May, when a sheriff's deputy found one of the caregivers had been bludgeoned to death last summer, her body left to rot in a cistern in the back yard.

The other caregiver is behind bars, accused of killing her.

Walls' family wants answers.

[photo]
Diana Engelhardt

[photo] Frederich Engelhardt
"This should have been stopped in October," says niece Debbie Rogers of Newport. "MRDD did not protect Jo Ann's rights. They allowed her to be put in this situation."

Rogers and her brother, Dale Daniels, say MRDD should have known that the home where their aunt lived with her guardians, Diana and Frederick Engelhardt, was a health hazard. It was so filthy and decrepit no one should have been living there, Rogers says.

Diana Engelhardt is also Walls' niece; Frederick is Diana's son.

Probate Court Magistrate Rogena Stargel named the Engelhardts Walls' guardians in 2000 after the death of Walls' sister, who had been her primary caregiver for decades. Family members say that Walls was happily living in a group home at the time and that they did not know the Engelhardts were seeking guardianship, which they would have opposed.

At the very least, Rogers and Daniels say their aunt should have been removed from the home in October, after Leigh couldn't locate Walls or Diana Engelhardt during a routine home visit.

[IMAGE] The Pippin Road home of the Engelhardts
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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Instead, Walls was left in the Pippin Road home until January - four months after Leigh requested emergency intervention because he felt something was terribly wrong.

Even more outrageous, Rogers and Daniels say, is that Frederick Engelhardt remains Walls' court-appointed guardian - almost two weeks after his arrest in his mother's brutal death.

Jenny Dexter, an MRDD spokeswoman, says that the agency could not respond to Leigh's October request, but that a social worker had already been looking into Walls' living conditions. She says an MRDD social worker notified Probate Court that there were problems at the home. That contact is not noted in court records.

Red flags

Walls is considered severely mentally retarded, with an IQ below 50.

"In some ways she's smart, but she functions on the level of a 5 or 6 year old," says Daniels, 42, of Price Hill.

Walls gets dressed by herself, but sometimes puts things on backward and needs help adjusting the clothes. She can talk, but has trouble with finding the right words and often makes up names when she can't say the right word. She loves to play with dolls and costume jewelry.

Her living condition first raised red flags for Leigh in late summer during a series of home visits. Because Probate Court oversees all guardianships, representatives routinely check home environments. In September, Frederick Engelhardt told Leigh his mother was in Las Vegas and that Walls was staying in Kentucky, although he refused to say where.

The investigator then asked MRDD to do an emergency investigation, but Malti Patel, director of quality assurance for the agency, denied that request, according to Leigh's report. Leigh wrote that Patel told him, "there was insufficient evidence to warrant an emergency investigation."

"How could they find insufficient evidence if they don't even go there?" asks Leigh, who now works in the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts office. "That's something that's bothered me ever since."

Dexter says MRDD did everything they could to help Walls, but some things are out of their scope.

"We can't force guardians to do what we want them to do unless the court intervenes," Dexter says. "We have to follow state law."

A 2002 Enquirer investigation, "Ohio's Secret Shame," revealed that inadequate oversight, neglect and poor living conditions are widespread in the system that cares for the mentally retarded. Most Ohio counties, the Enquirer found, don't know if the agencies and individuals they hire to care such people do good jobs - prompting calls for tough new reforms.

Daniels says he has asked MRDD to intervene on Walls' behalf since 2001, only to be told he wasn't the guardian.

"They said they couldn't get in the house," Daniels says. "I told them, 'If something happens to my aunt, you're responsible.' "

Body in a cistern

After Patel denied Leigh's request for the emergency intervention, Leigh recommended a court hearing be set in which both caregivers would attend to discuss if Walls should continue living in the home. A probate court hearing was set for Oct. 15.

Magistrate Marc Combs ordered Frederick Engelhardt to cooperate with investigators, but Walls remained living with him.

In November, the court ordered Frederick to place his great-aunt in a group home, which finally happened in January, according to court records. Walls is now living with a family. Rogers, who often talks to her care provider, says she is thriving in her new environment but that all of the changes have been difficult for her.

But Diana Engelhardt was still missing.

Rogers was finally was so suspicious she filed a missing persons report with the Hamilton County sheriff's office March 1. On May 22, detectives found the body.

Court records say Diana's body had been in the cistern since at least July 29.

Frederick Engelhardt, 31, was arrested and a Hamilton County grand jury indicted him Friday on charges of murder and gross abuse of a corpse. He is being held in the county jail with bond set at more than a half million dollars.

A hearing regarding Walls' guardianship is scheduled for June 16. But Rogers went to probate court Tuesday to file for guardianship.

"I don't want anything like this to ever happen again," Rogers says.

E-mail sturco@enquirer.com




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