(The following is my column for this week's Newton County News.)
Five years ago today (Sunday), 11 people lost their lives as a result of a fire at the Anderson Guest House.
Reflecting on what has happened since that time, one thing has become more and more obvious- mistakes by the government and by the media make it likely that at some point in the future we are going to be faced with a similar tragedy.
Since November 27, 2006, the Guest House owners, Robert and Laverne Dupont of Joplin, have been tried and convicted in federal court on fraud charges. Robert Dupont is serving a five-year sentence, while his wife was placed on probation for five years.
Bills requiring sprinkler systems in group homes have been passed, but efforts are already underway by one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the state, the Missouri Health Care Association, to have those requirements eliminated or considerably weakened.
And nowhere has anyone addressed the sloppy work done by state investigators that allowed the Duponts to continue operating group homes for the weakest among us despite a decades-long record of violating safety laws and not having the proper financial stability to run state-licensed homes.
No one has ever answered the question about how Dupont’s wife could have continued to run a number of Guest Houses in southwest Missouri even after her husband’s 2003 federal Medicare fraud conviction. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How could Dupont have been allowed anywhere near a group home despite the following items in his history?
-Dupont had declared bankruptcy in the mid-90s. State regulations are clear- Those who operate group homes must be able to prove financial solvency. Otherwise, you risk the danger of ownership cutting corners in order to squeeze dollars out of the operation of these facilities.
-Dupont had ignored serious problems with contaminated drinking water at the Joplin Guest House, problems that remained through multiple inspections.
-Dupont was connected with at least three facilities that had been closed due to numerous violations, the Lamar Guest House, Butler Guest House, and Springfield Guest House, even though it appears he pulled one of his patented tricks at that time, and fooled meekly compliant state officials into believing that it was his partner Karl Householder who had been in charge of those operations, leaving him to extend his brand of care into another series of Guest Houses.
State officials clearly dropped the ball for more than a decade as far as Robert Dupont was concerned, something that was pointed out time and time again in the pages of the Carthage Press and Lamar Press in 1997, and later on the first Turner Report website in 2000 and 2001.
State officials were unaware that the Guest House facilities had filed for bankruptcy in the mid-90s and had failed to pay property taxes in Barton County until Cait Purinton asked them about those problems during her investigation.
A vigilant media could have and should have shined the spotlight on the Duponts and on the bureaucratic nonsense that allowed them to continue in the group home business until one day those oversights cost 11 people their lives.
As far as I can tell, the Press and my blog were the only ones to ever investigate Dupont and the Guest Houses prior to November 27, 2006.
Undoubtedly, during the 2012 legislative session, we will find more politicians submitting legislation drafted by Missouri Health Care Association lobbyists significantly weakening or totally eliminating requirements to install sprinkler systems in group homes, as usual, citing the cost of burdensome regulations.
And just like the 11 people who died on November 27, 2006, the most defenseless among us, those who live in group homes, will have no one to speak for them.