State officials on Thursday ordered a Bucks County care center to close the unit responsible for a severely autistic man found dead in a sweltering parked van, and said they would remove its eight other residents from the campus.
The Department of Public Welfare also barred Woods Services Inc. from accepting new clients until state inspectors complete their investigation into the July 24 death of Bryan Nevins.
The company, which serves about 1,400 people with special needs, most at its 300-acre Langhorne campus, denied any wrongdoing and said it would appeal.
The sanctions, a rare move by state regulators, came a day after Deputy Welfare Secretary Richard Gold called Nevins' death "a totally avoidable tragedy" and promised quick action.
In a letter to Robert Griffith, Woods' president and chief executive officer, Gold cited "gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct" as the reasons the department was revoking the license of the unit where Nevins lived.
The letter and supporting documents did not accuse specific employees or offer new details about Nevins' treatment or his death.
But they said the circumstances indicated multiple violations of the state code regulating child residential facilities, including a provision that requires caregivers to check on clients at least every hour.
A 20-year-old with the mental ability of a toddler, Nevins was missing for nearly five hours when staffers found his body in the back of the parked van on one of the hottest afternoons of the summer.
"These violations pose a serious threat to the health and safety of the children at your facility," wrote Gold, who oversees the Office of Children, Youth, and Families.
The sanctions affect just a small slice of Woods Services. The company holds 36 other active licenses to provide services.
Bucks County prosecutors have charged a counselor, Stacey Strauss of Philadelphia, with felony neglect and other counts. They say Strauss, who had worked at the center for eight years, was responsible for Nevins after she and a coworker took him and three other clients to Sesame Place that morning and returned shortly after noon.
Through her attorney, Strauss has denied any wrongdoing and portrayed the death as a tragic accident. She is free on bail.
Nevins, a client at Woods for about five years, lived with at least eight others in a unit called Building 13, the state's inspection showed. The site was licensed to house up to 10 people.
One of Nevins' brothers, also autistic, lived at the facility, though it was unclear if they lived together. Their parents, who reside in New York, removed Nevins' brother from the campus after the death.
Nevins' father, William, said Thursday he was still awaiting answers.
"I think there should have been some system in place to double-check - besides Stacey Strauss," he said in an interview. "I don't understand how a handicapped, fully autistic child can go missing and nobody misses him for 51/2 hours."
Nevins, a retired police detective, said he hoped state officials would "find a suitable place" for the other residents in his son's unit.
The Welfare Department will work with their families and local service agencies to do just that, spokesman Michael Race said. He said the others ranged in age and needs, and were not all autistic.
The penalty marked the first time in at least three years that the Office of Children, Youth, and Families has closed a residential-treatment facility, Race said. Overall, the Department of Welfare last year revoked five licenses from the nearly 1,400 personal-care homes it regulates.
Woods said it planned to file its appeal within 10 days, as required. "Woods denies and disputes that it failed to comply with department regulations, that there was gross incompetence, neglect, or misconduct in operating its facility, and that there was abuse of individuals, as alleged," said a statement from spokeswoman Cheryl Kauffman.
Race noted that the penalties marked one step in an ongoing investigation.
"What happened today is by no means the end of our efforts or this process," he said.