ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York state will pay $2.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed after a disabled man choked to death in a state-run group home while an aide allegedly texted her boyfriend from the bathroom.
Eddie Velasquez's death in 2014 came one day after choking on sliced turkey he took from the kitchen of an Ithaca group home. The 48-year-old man, who could not speak and was born with developmental disabilities, was considered a choking risk and was not to be allowed in the kitchen or near food without supervision.
The Associated Press obtained a state investigator's confidential report that found the aide who was supposed to be watching him sent or received 137 text messages and talked on her personal phone more than 10 times. A co-worker told the investigator the aide was having problems with her boyfriend and "spent most of the day in the bathroom texting" him.
The investigation also cited the staff for failing to follow procedures for securing food. In addition, a bag ventilator that was supposed to be on hand to resuscitate choking residents couldn't be found.
"So much abuse and neglect of people with disabilities remains in the shadows," said Ilann Maazel, the attorney who represented Velasquez' sister in her negligence lawsuit against the state. "We need to bring it to light and hold those responsible accountable."
Denise DeCarlo, a spokeswoman for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the agency that oversees the Ithaca group home, said one aide was suspended for six months and another was fined $5,000 following an investigation. Both individuals were allowed to return to their jobs. Attempts to contact the aides were unsuccessful.
DeCarlo said staffers at the group home were retrained on choking prevention, food storage and resident supervision.
Velasquez was missing many of his teeth and had no molars, making it difficult for him to chew. Under his individualized care plan he wasn't supposed to eat anything that wasn't cut into half-inch pieces. His aides were also required to supervise him whenever he was eating or around food, to observe him for 30 minutes after he ate, and to check on him every 15 minutes throughout the day.
On the day he choked he entered the kitchen and took a large amount of sliced deli turkey from the refrigerator. An aide witnessed the incident and seized some of the turkey from Velasquez but did not ask him to open his mouth to reveal its contents. Velasquez then went to common area, where he choked and was found unresponsive several minutes later. Paramedics arrived but could not clear his airway; he did not regain consciousness and died the next day.
Lily McArdle said her brother's death shows the need to improve the vetting and training of state workers who take care of New York's most vulnerable residents.
"He brought so much joy. He loved to be kissed and he loved to hold our hands," McArdle, a New Jersey resident, said of her brother. "We felt like he was the angel of the house."