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Breaking News: Carlton Palms License Revoked and the Gingerbread House is Sold!

Try as I might to create a linear memorial, a legacy for those who lost their lives and their battered and abused peers in Bellweather's care, I am always one step behind.  From Au Clair to Advoserv to Bellweather, there is one clear and definitive lesson to be learned - longitudinal data on mass-institutionalization of children and adults with severe disabilities will always result in failure.

Yesterday, Bellweather lost its license for Carlton Palms, the former-Mazik-owned company. In 2015, its sister facility in Delaware was closed to Delaware-admissions. 

In November, Claire's Gingerbread House, the place where it all began nearly fifty years ago was auctioned off.  The new owner is an heir of the DiSabatino Construction company, a long-running builder in Delaware. Neighbors tell me Bellweather is still there serving children. The assumption is that the company is leasing its former home from DiSabatino.

Now, the news every Floridian is talking about: Yesterday, Carlton Palms Education Center, owned and operated by Bellweather, lost its license.  Not lost it like my eleven year old losses everything he touches, rather they felt the bitter sting of REVOCATION!  The State of Florida had already taken action to end the Bellweather monopoly after years of documented abuse. Carlton Palms was under a state-issued order to move their clients to more appropriate community residences. Thus far, it's been reported in various published sources that Bellweather had removed approx. 50 clients.

How will the Revocation impact Bellweather? It's all hypothetical from here on out. While we all have the urge to stand a little taller today, I caution anyone who believes this story is over. It's my experience that we will be humbled again and again.

Nina Bernstein, Fortune Teller, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.

When the welfare reform bill became law in 1997, Carlton Palms was nearly ten years old. It had opened under the premise it would serve 20 to 30 students, as reported at the time by the Lake Sentinel. By 1990, Carlton Palms was serving 48 clients from 28 states.  In 1997, the company, rechristened Advoserv, cared for 120 children and adults in Delaware, New Jersey, and Florida. At its height in 2015, Advoserv would house more than 700 severely disabled children and adults. 

It's important to note that the remainder of this post will rely heavily on the excellent reporting of Heather Vogell of Propublica.

Advoserv rolled out their lobby firing off emails to state officials promising attractive changes. However, Vicky Kelly, director of the agency's family services division in 2012 found no evidence of the claimed improvements. 

The issue of restraints was a tough one. The state psychiatric center for adults was reducing use of restraints per federal insistence. Yet, Advoserv was deeply committed to the practice. Sending the state's own children to Advoserv placed Delaware officials in a precarious position - prohibiting restraint for adults while permitting the practice for youth with serious disabilities.

Delaware's legislators were struck by the dichotomy. The legislature introduced a bill to end the use of mechanical restraints on public school children and limit holds to bare hands. 

It was a stunning blow to Adovserv as Delaware public schools sent more children to them than any other state child welfare agency. Each student, 30 receiving services of which 20 were residential, resulted in six-figure bills. Vogell found that in one instance Advoserv was receiving a combined payment of $383,000 per year for just one student.

Advoserv reacted to the legislation in the form former state Rep. Bob Byrd who lobbied his former colleagues for a loophole in the restraint legislation. Byrd's firm reps him as "a Jedi Master of government arts with a long practice as the legislator he once was and the lobbyist he is. When the confusion, the divide and the intricacies are at their worst, if anyone can be counted upon to pick his way through, it is Bob." (No, I can't make this stuff up.) Surpisingly, Advoserv does not make the firm's list for prized clients. 

Advoserv wanted a provisional waiver permitting mechanical restraint if the facility deemed there was a need for "particularly challenging resident."  The company relied on Byrd to make that happen. According to Vogell, Byrd told state school officials and the director of the state's Developmental Disability Council "that the because of Advoserv's intervention, the bill would go nowhere without the waiver provision."

Byrd was correct. In June 2013, the bill passed with the waiver provision included. 

Buoyed by Byrd's success, Advoserv pivoted to another front that threatened their bottom line - a decrease in Delaware students being referred by the Delaware Department of Education and the state's ICT - Interagency Collaborative Team - a panel of representatives of several administrative agencies that determines if a student meets eligibility guidelines for private education at the state's expense.  

It was a full court press:
"One of my clients represents Advoserv," former Delaware Controller General Russell Larson wrote in an email to top education leaders in August 2013. "I would love to meet with you to find out if there's anything I can tell my client to help them improve their service." - Vogell
Vogell would access additional emails that revealed how Advoserv pressured then-Gov. Jack Markell to intercede on their behalf. They threatened to leave the state if school referrals did not pick up. However, education officials countered that Advoserv was receiving referrals.
Amidst the email volley and despite Advoserv's lobby, it soon became apparent that all was not well in Camelot.  In the course of one year, seven abuse complaints were lodged against Advoserv. While Delaware continued to refuse to send foster children to the company, they put Advoserv on probation and threatened to revoke their license. The move compelled officials at the facility to make improvements that would shore up their standing in Delaware. 
In August 2014, Advoserv was approved by the Department of Education to receive students via ICT (not foster) for an additional three years. In May 2015, foster care licensing officials removed Advoserv from probation although they continued to refuse to refer children to the facility. 
In 2015 Bellweather would acquire Advoserv. In 2016, Janaia Barnhart would die in a Bellweather group home. The Delaware Department of Education responded by ordering all sending districts to re-locate their students and increase visits to weekly until each Delaware student was resettled. 
Bellweather would continue to advertise from 2016 through 2017 that it offered an education program approved by the Delaware Department of Education. The department responded to an email from this writer that the advertisement was untrue. Bellweather had lost its approval with Janaia's mysterious death. However, the following promo piece was still posted on Bellweather's website, as of Jan. 1, 2018. It has only recently been removed.

Yes, Nina Bernstein had been correct when she opined that: 

  • A push for profit could compromise the care of the children within the facility
  • Chronic weakness in state regulations could be manipulated by profit-seeking entities lobbying for loopholes and influence
  • Revelation that one person essentially and "quietly engineered...without scrutiny" a massive shift of national policy 

What's next? How the same scenario played out in Mount Dora, Florida. 

Against the Tide

Ken and Clair Mazik opened Au Clair during the national crisis that led to the de-institutionalization of thousands of mentally ill or developmentally impaired children and adults. How they bucked the trend has much to do with a for-profit lobby that both gained influence over legislators and quietly orchestrated a massive national policy change.

On May 4, 1997, the New York Times ran this headline "Deletion of Word in Welfare Bill Opens Foster Care to Big Business," written by Nina Bernstein. Bernstein alleged that Mazik played an integral role in opening a new funding stream, a legal way to dip into another government-funded bucket previously reserved for non-profit programs serving foster children. At the time, this was the holy grail of care reimbursements. Due diligence would have served our legislators well.

"...a closer look at Au Clair reveals a deeply troubled history, and a closer look at the little-noticed change engineered by its founder, Kenneth M. Mazik, shows that it sharply alters Government policy on care for the poorest children.

The change opened the way for for-profit orphanages to compete for the billions of dollars that the government spends each year to support poor children who are taken away from homes judged unfit. It comes at a time when many experts predict that welfare changes will push thousands of children from their homes and into the care of the state. 
Historically, only foster families or nonprofit institutions, mostly charity-based, were eligible for this money. It is now the last unlimited pool available for poor children. - Nina Bernstein

In 1992, Mazik had an awakening of sorts. A team of investigators from New York arrived at the Gingerbread House to inspect the school and residences. The investigators found "deplorable conditions and maltreatment of children at Au Clair." (Bernstein) New York responded by removing all of their students from the Mazik's care. 

Just two years later, in 1994, the City of Philadelphia informed Mazik and Au Clair that it could terminate its $3.7 million contract for the 31 children in Au Clair's care if the facility did not become non-profit. Mazik wasn't interested in changing his school to comport with Philadelphia's request. True to form, he pushed back and sent his Vice President Brian Murphy to Washington D.C. where Murphy lobbied for two years for a change in regulations that he termed an "uncontroversial matter of equity." Murphy is credited with the deletion of one word, "non-profit" in a lengthy 400 page reauthorization of the welfare bill.

Welfare reform was a hot topic in 1997 with former President Clinton vetoing the first two versions that made their way to his desk. The third version was a compromise that protected the federal foster care entitlements. A consensus of politicians agreed to leave the existing support in place and carry the current language into the new reform bill.  However, one legislator went astray. According to Murphy, he convinced Senator John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat with a seat on the finance committee to delete that one little word, "non-profit," from the bill. (Bernstein) 

The Change went fairly unnoticed by the legislature that approved the welfare reform bill. Nor did it catch the eye of President Clinton who finally signed the bi-partisan legislation into law.

It all appeared innocuous, institutions like the ones Mazik ran had always been able to claim other federal funds for the children and adults for whom they cared. Their lobbyists called this change a levelling the playing field between non-profits and for-profits. But, the federal foster funds were the honey pot for for-profits. At the time, Mark E. Courtney, a University of Wisconsin scholar at the Institute for Research on Poverty opined that that public agencies did not "have their act together well enough to hand over a huge chunk of money to people who have an incentive to maximize profits at the expense of the children" in their care (Bernstein.)

Bernstein's assessment of a profit-driven welfare system  was based on Au Clair's record of care:

Over the years, Mr. Mazik has been accused of mistreating children in his care and of evading meaningful government oversight, even as his company expanded to care for 130 disturbed children from 24 states -- at sites in Bear and Middleton, Del., and Mount Dora, Fla. -- at yearly rates of more than $140,000 for each child. - Bernstein

Bernstein drew crucial and critical conclusions from that deletion of one little word:

  • A push for profit could compromise the care of the children within the facility
  • Chronic weakness in state regulations could be manipulated by profit-seeking entities lobbying for loopholes and influence
  • Revelation that one person essentially and "quietly engineered...without scrutiny" a massive shift of national policy 

Her worst predictions would proved true...

Mass Impact

How does an institution become an instrument of death? It's a hard question to ask and an even harder one to answer. It's a phenomenon not just applied to Au Clair/Advoserv/Bellweater, nor to Delaware or Florida. The World Health Organization, WHO, provides that
Every year, there are an estimated 41 000 homicide deaths in children under 15 years of age. This number underestimates the true extent of the problem, as a significant proportion of deaths due to child maltreatment are incorrectly attributed to falls, burns, drowning and other causes
There is no one discernable agency that collects data on the deaths of children and adults receiving in-patient mental health and developmental care.  Private facilities often reject Freedom of Information Act requests for this data. Collectively, our society has since its onset devalued human life when that life was that of  someone physically, neurologically, or behaviorally impaired.  We keep records of touchdowns and Super Bowls, but not of how children and adults die when secreted in private profit or non-profit facilities.

These failures make it very difficult to ascertain when the perfect storm is brewing. Lawsuits that end in settlements further skew the statistics. Money is the law's way of saying "I'm sorry." However, that apology doesn't come with a statistic.  It obliterates it. Most settlements don't require a party to admit fault. Settlements actually make it more difficult to chase the ghosts.

Chasing ghosts. I've been chasing ghosts for more than a year, collecting the footprints left by Au Clair/Advoserv/Carlton Palms/Bellweather in newspapers across the country. I've read more than 4000 want ads, tracked Advoserv to a fleeting effort to influence disability care in Iowa, delved into harness racing and how lightening really does strike twice, learned much more about the Spanish armada than I will ever need to know, delved into real estate holdings, investigated nearly 40 business entities to discern their function and met many fascinating individuals whose contributions and leads are priceless. Most striking, however, are the tortured stories of children abused and/or killed in the care of their institutions. They are the most devastating. They are the reason we are all here, we ache to tell their stories. We hear them in the silence. We hear them in the Echo.

Although there are many sidebars yet to be written, many flings and forays to explore in the journey of Au Clair/Advoserv/Carlton Palms/Bellweather; it is evident that now is the time to pivot and delve into the phenomenon that allowed Mazik to institutionalize children and adults during a time of national de-institutionalism. It is only through documenting the past that we can hope to never repeat it. It's time to acknowledge those who paid the highest price for society's ready response to house away those complex special need individuals whose lives were assigned less value by society majority simply because they were not born "typical" - but instead came into this unwelcoming world with innate needs that required specialized care to reach their full potential.

The question at hand is how did Ken Mazik build an empire?

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To Bellweather With Love, Echo

Happy World Autism Day!

Au Clair/AdvoServ-Bell Weather Takes Another Life

William James Lamson passed away March 1st, 2018 after Bell Weather staff insisted he self-injured himself - slamming his head into the floor until he was dead. It truly is as ludicrous an explanation as one can get.

The most glaring problem with the initial accounting of William's death was that there was no blood, nor did William have any signs of head trauma such as the kind one would receive when pounding the back of their skull repeatedly against a hard floor.  If he hit his head hard enough to kill himself, certainly the coroner would have found evidence of head trauma...

Several years ago, while member of our local board of education, I was struck by the trauma that families undergo when they loose their child.  It became the tradition of my previous blog Children and Educators First to post a particular song whenever a life was lost.  That song, Firefly, was the favorite song of the very first student I lost.  

Tonight, I dedicate it to Willie Lamson, taken from this world all too soon.  This song is for you and those who loved you and have been left behind. 

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Mazik's first defamation suit. It wasn't Antonio.

When news broke last summer that Mount Dora resident Amber Antonio was subject to a defamation suit by Ken Mazik, it rallied a chorus of voices to her support. There is no denying that Mazik appears enjoys the air of infamy and mystery that surround him. Afterall, he really only ever speaks through his attorney and it seems that outside his inner circle of friends, he's rather reclusive.

The Mount Dora Buzz broke the news about the lawsuit in July 2017:
In July, an attorney for Main Street Leasing (MSL) and its owner Ken Mazik, a prominent downtown Mount Dora businessman, sent a missive to a local woman demanding a public apology for critical opinions she expressed. The letter dictated that her apology must include arguably demeaning language about herself in order to avoid a defamation lawsuit.
Of course Antonio didn't make a public apology. Who would? Thus the defamation suit was filed. Mazik fulfilled his threat. As of publishing this piece,  it's yet to be fully litigated.  However, this is not Mazik's first foray into defamation law. A smart fact that was not uncovered by Mazik crusader, Lauren Ritchie, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. In his defense Ritchie opined that
It might be best for everyone if the self-described “40-year-old housewife” got off the internet and returned to dusting knick-knacks in her living room... Hopefully, the action will send keyboard cowards scurrying for their lives, leaving real journalists as the last man standing...
While Ritchie cited other instances of such suits in both her news stories and opinion pieces, she missed the one that counts. Everyone missed the one that counts. The FIRST - affectionately headlined by the Delaware Morning News as "Suit is filed by Au Clair School Chief."

The premise behind the legal action was that two former employees of the Au Clair School defamed Mazik and the school when they served as sources for the 1979 News Journal series that laid open the school and its treatment of is residents. Still missing is how this case was resolved. Likely settlement as it doesn't appear to have had a judicial opinion entered into any legal database or print journal. Or perhaps, it was quietly dropped. There is no readily available definitive answer as of now. Happy Reading.

Wilmington, Delaware
Wed, May 6, 1981 – Page 34
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Chasing Ghosts 1983 Racing into Washington

Despite Mazik's propensity to avoid directly commenting to the press, he appeared to a have a penchant for leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for journalists to follow. (Yes, by this part in the series, we are mixing fairy tales.)

By February 20, 1983, Mazik was again making headlines. The News Journal actually dedicated an entire page to Mazik and his "ventures."  And the name dropping... Stoltzs', DiSabatino, Poppiti, Oh My! Magness, Brooks, and Acierno. OH MY! Mazik had certainly been hobnobbing with some powerful friends and true legacy names in the small state of Delaware.

When his focus should have been Au Clair, Mazik had other perhaps more lucrative plans.  He had enlisted Delaware builder Joseph Capano to invest in a new Harness Racing Track in Washington state. Every potential investor had to be vetted by Washington State's Securities Officer.  Capano didn't pass the vet and was forced out of the money making deal. 

Washington also announced that "Mazik's own personal and financial background" were being investigated. He would eventually pass the vetting and even was hired to sugarfoot the build. But, in the end, the names were just names. He was the only Delawarean to fund the Washington race track.

Meanwhile, during this same period of time - two Mazik trainers came forward with claims that he had failed to pay them. His attorney claimed they were owed nothing. However, Mazik, in turn, was suing his ex-wife Clair for a share of the profits in the Silk Stalkings Syndicate. After their divorce, Mazik had purchased Silk Stalkings' 1980 foal for $145,000 and established his own horse syndicate. In Florida, perhaps?

Then there were the rumors that mired the foal, Temujin. Allegations arose that  Joe Capano had been a "silent partner," a violation of the rules set forth by the US Trotting Association. Then it was learned that Temujin had raced twice at Brandywine despite Mazik's failure to register the horse in Delaware - another Trotting Association requirement. 

Clair Mazik, through her attorney, responded to the entire debacle with one particularly precise allegation - Mazik was using funds from the school for personal purchases while failing to declare dividends.  Claire asked the state to put Au Clair into RECEIVERSHIP!

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Chasing Ghosts 1982 - Original Au Clair Gets a Pass

June 22, 1982, it happened. After more than a year of combat between the state and the facility, the Au Clair School received a one year license. 

Oz received it reprieve.

July 16, 1982, the appeals court finds on behalf of former program manager Dean Alexander and his wife. 

What really happened between December 6, 1980 and July 16, 1982 was a series of legal maneuvers in which Mazik tried at every chance to get himself off the hook for the loan it appears was cajoled from the Alexanders after a long night of negotiating, culminating with a Superior Court Appeal that held the judgement of the lower courts. With that loan document, Mazik had literally written himself into a corner. It was a simple error. Mazik had a form book. He'd selected the form to use for the contract.  He completed it and signed as did the Alexanders. Then Mazik defaulted on the loan.  Dean Alexander ups and leaves Au Clair after just six month and sues Mazik for repayment. Mazik begs the court for relief; however, it turns out that he waived that right when he chose and signed the contract. Lesson? Form books are tricky little things. 

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Palette Cleansors...

I love old newspapers! There is nothing more intoxicating than aging newsprint to an old timey journalist. The feel of paper between the fingers, the tattered edges, the cultural currency reflected within those yellowing pages. The truly sad revelation that someday, my own grandchildren, will know nothing of newsprint as the "news" will likely be beamed directly into a chip in the brain. Til then, you'll find me cherishing the society pages of old, of garden parties and library fundraisers, the complete works of the local Knights of Columbus, and those darling scouts selling cookies (while learning the finer skills of a successful Ponzi scheme.)   

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Chasing a Ghost 1981, Temujin's Coming Out Party

1981 - Temujin/Ghengis Khan

Had Lake County thoroughly vetted the Au Clair/Carlton Palms proposal, it likely would not have been greenlighted.  While the benefits of today's social media platforms did not exist in the 1980s, print journalism was thriving.  As we previously opined, little was known about the students transferred to Carlton Palms in its opening weeks. However, it's founder did leave a paper trail, a newspaper trail, that attested to his motivations. . Undeniably, founder Mazik kept a low profile from 1981 to 1986. But, there were stories published in a smattering of news papers. Delaware's New Journal published the 1980 Au Clair licensing expose. The Philadelphia Daily News carried stories about the founder and his horse syndicate while Mazik made appearances in the social pages of the Sentinel.  It could be argued that Lake County was negligent in failing to research the project and its principals and it succumbed to the propaganda. 

In 1981, Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News, debunked Mazik's Silk Stalking's myth. The amazing little race horse who was featured at least three times on 60 Minutes, who not only lived alongside special needs children but had also saved their home from certain financial insecurity, was little more than contrived folklore.  It was, Kiser opined, a lie. 

Kiser didn't mince words when it came Mazik and his return to the harness racing syndicate:
This time, however, nobody is fighting to interview him, to put him on television, to break out the sob stories about the autistic children and the horses. The publicity releases don't even mention autistic children, or give him the title of doctor.  A win by his pacer tonight could make a lot of people forget about a lot of bad problems. Mazik could be back on top, not to mention $875,000 richer for the win. -

Mazik's new pacer was Temujin, formerly known as Silky's Son. A ridgeling, it was predicted he would slide into harness racing obscurity. Nothing about this pacer showed promise. According to Kiser even Mazik's purchase appeared to be a muddled business dealing. Ken Mazik acquired Temujin at the 1980 Kentucky sale, but that purchase actually occurred under different name. Mazik proclaimed that he already had half ownership of  Silky's Son. The assertion created a brew-ha-ha on the harness racing circuit. When everything had blown over, Mazik was Silky's Son's owner. He renamed the colt to Temujin, which conincidentally was Ghengas Kahn's birth name. Not surprisingly, the Yiddish word "Mazik" has a very special meaning of its own, "mischeivious little devil." Fascinating!

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Carlton Palms Opens Its Doors

Carlton Palms Opens
The Orlando Sentinel,
Jan 13, 1987

January 13, 1987 - The Sentinel marked the opening of Carlton Palms with little fanfare. The former Carlton Palms Retirement Center had been modified to a residential school for children with autism. Within the first week, six students were relocated from "other facilities" owned by the same company. The Palms opened in phases with the first cohort of kids cared for by live-in caregivers. After three months, owner Ken Mazik, planned to morph the care model to one more similar to a nursing home where students would be cared for and educated by a staff working rotating eight hour shifts. Mazik planned to add two children per month to the mix. He intended to rollout an intensive "language development program," aka speech therapy.

Presumably, those first students came from Au Clair, in Delaware. They were accompanied by their existing caregivers. It was an example of best practices in the slowly emerging treatment field of autism, its care and the education of children affected. These caregivers, already known to the children, would help to reduce the trauma of relocation. This stellar moment begs the question, was it lack of will or lack of care that would plague Carlton Palms in the years to come? Regardless, Mazik was on the cusp, in the right place, at the right time. Soon his services would be in great demand.

Within 30 years, the world would be thrust into an autism pandemic. Approximately 1% of the world's population would be diagnosed with Autism by 2014 (CDC/Autism Society.) This is how it breaks down:  In the United States more than 3.5 million Americans are challenged by this disorder in 2014. The CDC would report that 1 in 68 births resulted in a child living with diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Four of five children diagnosed with autism would be boys, a statistic that has been steady since Autism was first widely recognized. In 2017, the cause for this disorder is still a mystery. With the rise of diagnosis came the advent of new treatment models, the most successful and recognized of which is ABA, Applied Behavior Analysis.

In 2017, Carlton Palms, under a different owner, offers a full battery of interventions and living environments even at the facility itself faces imminent closure. 
It's unknown to the public what model or models Carlton Palms first employed. However, as early as 1975 Mazik claimed he was utilizing operant conditioning when interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquire for a Feb. 16, 1975 story about Autism.( Feb. 16, 1975. Regardless, the model adopted at the original Au Clair is arguably cruelty. But, in 1987, no one in Florida knows the truth behind each of the first six children to travel to Carlton Palms in its opening week. 

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