Life at 240 Earlham Terrace, a short, narrow street in Germantown, was rough for three intellectually disabled men kept on the third floor.

The furnace wasn’t working in the depths of this bitter cold winter, and space heaters in the bedrooms regularly blew out a circuit breaker, cutting off the heat and plunging the house into darkness. The circuit breaker in what turned out to be an unlicensed group home was inaccessible behind a dead bolt in the basement.

“It felt like I was sitting outside on a park bench. That’s how cold it was,” said Tiffani Melton, who rented a second-floor room in the house from late October until mid-February and promised to get the men out of there after one of them begged her for help because he couldn’t stand the sight and smell of feces anymore.

Another man, of fewer words, told her simply: “I just want to leave.”

He got his wish, but not until seven weeks after the first official complaint Jan. 7, according to state officials. That’s when Melton raised an alarm and provided information needed to help the men she described as hostages whose monthly disability checks were being collected by the operators of the facility.

The case highlights what advocates say are the failings of the state’s adult protective services system, established by a 2010 law to ensure adequate investigations of allegations of abuse, neglect, exploitation, or abandonment of people with intellectual disabilities aged 18 to 59.

“This is outrageous that these men were living in this condition for as long as they were and at risk in the way that they were without anything being done,” said Judy Banks, deputy director of Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg nonprofit federally designated to protect the rights of and advocate for Pennsylvanians with disabilities.

More than 50,000 Pennsylvanians participate in the state’s programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities, including 5,413 licensed group homes with the capacity to care for 18,713 people.

Insufficient oversight

For advocates, the Germantown case recalls the failings that led to a death in 2017, at Blossom Philadelphia, which was the subject of numerous complaints to Adult Protective Services. Blossom in 2017 lost its license to operate 32 group homes with 89 residents after regulators found “gross incompetence.”

The state brought in new operators for the homes, but not before one client, Vincent McNamara, choked to death because his caregivers gave him the wrong food.

Advocates also faulted the state for not yet having established regulations for Adult Protective Services — nine years after the law was passed. “The regulations will provide the guidance that’s needed around investigations,” Banks said.

In the year ended June 2016, the latest available, Adult Protective Services received 9,168 complaints, conducted 5,032 investigations, and substantiated allegations in 1,225 cases.

The system failed

Melton, who rented her room for $100 a week, was not aware of that big picture, but she was convinced the men on the third floor — possibly in their 50s — deserved better. So she called the company coordinating state-funded services for at least one of the men.

Responding to her call for help, representatives from Pennsylvania’s Adult Protective Services visited 240 Earlham Terrace on Jan. 10.

But nothing changed.

Melton, 43, said she kept calling, first Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, responsible for taking such complaints, and then the Adult Protective Services directly.

Still nothing.

Exasperated, she contacted The Inquirer on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

The following Friday this reporter passed her information along to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which pays for and regulates services for intellectually disabled individuals. On Monday, Feb. 25, acting on The Inquirer’s tip, state officials removed three men from the unlicensed property and took them to a hospital for evaluation, officials said.

DHS spokesperson Ali Fogarty said that one of the men removed from 240 Earlham was in a nursing home receiving rehabilitation. The two others were at licensed facilities while permanent arrangements are being made.

An investigation is ongoing, Fogarty said, but she would provide no additional details, citing confidentiality rules. Any penalties for operating an unlicensed care facility and not complying with the mandated standards of care “will be determined through the investigation,” she said.

Held hostage

City records list Joyce L. Bowman, 75, as the owner of 240 Earlham Terrace. Bowman also shows up in public records with the last names Smith and Pugh, which is how Melton knows her.

“I’m confused with her," Melton said. "The lady says she’s God-fearing and then is holding these men hostage and not taking care of them.”

The goal of community homes for intellectually disabled individuals is to allow them to lead “everyday lives" to the greatest extent possible. Melton said everyday life on Earlham Terrace meant not going anywhere, dealing with a kitchen that was locked in the evening after the caretakers left, and living in the dark because the operators were obsessed with keeping the lights out.

Because of the darkness, “they literally climbed the stairs on their hands and knees,” Melton said of the men on the third floor. “I busted my nose on the wall walking up the steps because the lights were out,” she said.

One man asked her for clean underwear because he had feces running down his leg, Melton said. She said she gave him a pair of her fiance’s underwear, which she had in her room.

Reached by telephone Monday, Pugh had nothing to say about the emergency removal of the men from the unlicensed group home.

“I don’t know anything about it, and I’m tired of hearing about it. It’s a done deal," she said.

As to how she got into the group-home business, Pugh said: “I wasn’t into a business. I wasn’t into a business. Please don’t call back. It’s been very upsetting.”

The statewide director of Adult Protective Services, Kirk Golden, did not respond to a request for more information about the Earlham Terrace case. Golden works for Liberty Health Corp., a Bala Cynwyd company that provides the protective services.

Dee Coccia, co-president of Vision for Equality, a Philadelphia nonprofit that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities, was not surprised to hear what happened after Melton contacted Adult Protective Services.

“I haven’t seen anybody tell me a success story with them,” Coccia said. “To be forthright about it, I don’t have much respect for the work they’re doing.”