KIYC: Financial practices of agency that served autistic adults questioned

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A Kane In Your Corner investigation raises questions about the financial practices of a North Jersey agency that served adults with autism. The Institute for Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities abruptly shut down last week, leaving more than 60 employees unpaid and dozens of families scrambling to make care arrangements. And Kane In Your Corner finds the closure comes amid an audit into possible Medicaid overbilling, and investigations by the New Jersey attorney general and other agencies.

As an autistic adult, Jared Bernadette of Belleville is dependent on his aide, Merrill Gil-Santiago. “Merrill is the most important thing in my son’s care,” says Jared’s mother, Ingrid Bernadette. “She’s the one who makes sure he eats properly. She’s the one who makes sure he doesn’t die when he has a seizure.”

For now, though, Ingrid Bernadette has been forced to pay Gil-Santiago out of her own pocket. She has also reimbursed Gil-Santiago for $1,200 in pay the IBHDD owes her, saying “I can’t afford for her not to be able to pay her rent.”

The Bernadettes were left without care when the IBHDD closed its offices in Belleville and its care center in Paramus last Thursday. The closure came after the sudden death of the agency’s CEO, Damon Ceaser, followed by the Board of Trustee’s realization that it lacked the funds to make payroll.

Board President Lenora Bissoondial says she only recently became aware of the issues at the IBHDD and is working to resolve them. But some employees have been complaining about irregularities for years and say the board should have provided oversight much sooner. And documents obtained by Kane In Your Corner show employees complained to the New Jersey comptroller, the New Jersey attorney general and other agencies, accusing the group of “Medicaid fraud,” “misuse of funds” and other irregularities. 

Gil-Santiago says Ceaser routinely asked her to overbill Medicaid by falsifying paperwork. “To fill out paperwork that would get him reimbursed at a higher rate than actually what we did,” Gil Santiago says, “which I refused to do.”

“I called the attorney general’s office, I called the Justice Department, and I called Wells Fargo, because all our accounts were there, and they told me to call the FBI,” says Claire Baney-Tucker, IBHDD’s former director of business development.

Some former employees also raised questions about the quality of care in IBHDD’s adult day program. Baney-Tucker says, “I call it a warehouse, because that’s what it was,” while Gil-Santiago says clients were provided with little stimulation and frequently “spent all day coloring, which is horrible.” The agency also “lost” a client for several hours during a trip to a local shopping mall, and failed to report the incident to the state, several employees say.

Ingrid Bernadette says her son is lucky; his aide always provided excellent care and still does. She worries about other families, who may have fewer options. “What do you say to your boss?” she asks rhetorically. “‘Oh I can't come in for a few days until I find someone to take care of my son?’ Is that something that's viable? No. And that just happened to 35 parents.”

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