Current employee and family of veterans allege physical abuse, retaliation at Huntsville veterans home

This photo is a of the late Tommie Pierce, sent to WAFF 48 News by his granddaughter Amanda...
This photo is a of the late Tommie Pierce, sent to WAFF 48 News by his granddaughter Amanda Childress with permission for use. Childress alleges Pierce was physically abused at the home.(Source: Amanda Childress)
Published: Mar. 21, 2019 at 6:14 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Allegations of veterans mistreatment continue against the Floyd E. “Tut” Fann Veterans Home in Huntsville.

A current employee and family members of former veterans at the home are alleging physical abuse, mistreatment, chronic under-staffing, and a culture of fear at the facility.

The allegations come after WAFF 48 News published a report on Tut Fann where two former employees alleged mistreatment of the veterans staying there.

Years of state inspection documents supported some of the former employees claims, but the most recent reports clear the facility of any major deficiencies.

The facility serves roughly 150 veterans, some who are unable to speak for themselves.

The following account comes from Amanda Childress, the granddaughter of a former veteran who stayed at the facility. WAFF 48 News contacted Amanda after she commented pictures of her grandfather, Tommie Pierce, on a Facebook post of the original report.

Childress said she did not want to be on camera, but provided a number of photos of Pierce at the facility.

WAFF 48 News independently verified the location in the photos and the the presence of Mr. Pierce at the home with other sources.

His obituary also supports Childress’ claim of relation and his residence.

She sent the following in an email to WAFF. For the privacy of another patient and his/her family members, WAFF omitted a portion of the email.

"My grandfather’s name was Tommie Pierce, he was a WWII purple heart veteran who chose to move to Tut Fann in April 2012 and he lived there until he passed away on 08/29/2018 (sic).

The first few years he lived there he was still very sharp mentally and did well. In the last year or so of his life his mental state began to deteriorate and a couple things happened that made us question his quality of care. We visited him weekly, sometimes twice weekly and never had cause for concern until my mother received a phone call from the nursing home the night of 10/17/17. The nursing home is required to contact the family if a patient is injured. The person who called my mother said she didn’t know what happened but my grandfather had “red rings” around his eyes and she thought it might have been caused by Plavix, a medication he had taken for years. We thought this was odd but nothing the caller said indicated the severity of his injuries.

Since we live an hour away, my mother waited until the next morning to drive to the nursing home where she found him in the condition you saw in the photos. Obviously his two black eyes and bruises were a bit more than “rings around his eyes” and she began to question what had happened. She asked my grandfather if he fell or if an employee had done that to him and he stated clear as day that “an employee did this.” He had several falls while he was a resident there but he had never before blamed the nursing home staff for anything.

Over the course of that day my mother spoke to nursing home staff and administrators trying to get to the bottom of what happened. She said at first the staff she spoke with hinted that they thought they knew who did it but they got quiet after speaking with the administrator. Mom also spoke with a detective from HPD who came out and met her and my grandfather at Tut Fann and took a statement. I just recently threw away the detective's card but I am almost certain his first name was Mark. I was at work during all of this and I had my mother send me the phone number to the state ombudsman which is on a poster in each patient's room.

The next day I contacted the ombudsman and requested an investigation into the incident. My grandfather was also taken to Huntsville Hospital on that same day to be checked out but the physician on duty could not say whether or not my grandfather had been struck. A friend of mine who is an MD took a look at the photos and said the bruising was indicative of him being hit and she told me to look behind his ears to see if there was bruising and that if I found bruising behind his ears it was almost certainly caused from being punched - she gave me a list of indicators for Battle’s signs and I went to see him the next day and found that he met several of the indicators, including the bruising behind the ears.

Months later we heard back from both the state ombudsman's office and HPD who told us that they could not find evidence of wrongdoing. They could not take my grandfather at his word because of his mental state and they could not find anyone at the nursing home who was willing to talk. Whatever happened that night caused my grandfather to become very depressed, he allegedly tried to commit suicide one night shortly after the incident by tying a garbage bag around his head. Between the time of the incident in October 2017 and his death in August 2018 we often found him face down on the table in the dining room when we would visit, left sitting in a recliner he could not get up from (he was an amputee), and a couple times found his room so nasty the smell of urine would knock you down when you entered the room.

My mother agreed to share our story in the hopes that someone would come forward who could corroborate my grandfather’s claim of being hit and that justice could finally be served but sadly, since there are no cameras in the patients rooms, only two people know what happened: my grandfather and the person who did it. We hope that measures will be taken as a result of the investigation spurred by your reporting to keep current and future residents safe and administrators and staff will be held accountable for the mistreatment of residents."

The current employee describes himself/herself as a “caregiver” and has been at the facility for a number of years.

The employee requested to remain anonymous over concerns of retaliation by the facility’s administration in response to this report.

WAFF 48 News agreed to keep his/her identity private after the employee was able to provide identification that only workers at the facility would possess.

In order to protect the identity of the employee, WAFF 48 News is intentionally leaving his/her role and length of employment vague.

The caregiver said claims made by the former employees in the above-cited WAFF 48 News report are true.

The caregiver said he/she did see “Mr. James” (the pseudonym for a veteran at the home, cited by the former employees) with Scabies (a skin mites condition).

Both former employees in the report said “Mr. James” roamed the home freely.

“When people get sick in there, they still let them freely roam around, and then other people start catching it. When it gets to the point where CNA’s (Certified Nursing Assistants) start calling out because they’re sick, that’s when I guess they jump into action,” he/she said.

The current employee said he/she saw as many as seven veterans afflicted in the C-Wing of the facility with Scabies between 2017 and 2018. He/she said the veterans were receiving treatment.

He/she said as the Scabies spread, the ‘Tut Fann’ administration ultimately decided to treat the entire hall.

The caregiver said he/she has not personally seen bed bugs in the facility, but claims to have been told about them by co-workers.

The caregiver did support a former employee’s claim of veterans mistreatment in the dining hall of the facility.

He/she described how the facility would sometimes feed the veterans “mush” and that at times there’s not enough food for every veteran at the home.

The current employee said inconsistent food deliveries at times force the kitchen to “figure something out.”

He/she also supported a former employee’s claim of administrative inaction on complaints or concerns about the treatment of veterans.

“The same old protocol. Family members are called, whoever dealt with the person is contacted as far as like the CNA’s, the nurses that work that day or stuff like that but then everything, you never hear anything else," the caregiver said.

The caregiver said he/she has seen as many as four veterans with black eyes at the facility since being there.

He/she said the administration was made aware of the black eyes by co-workers, but it’s unclear what (if any) action was taken.

“I’ve seen them with bruises. There was a nurse on third shift, she wrote up some reports. The CNA’s, nothing’s being done about it.”

He/she claims the bruises and black eyes were inflicted by members of the staff, as he/she doubted the veterans were physically capable of harming themselves in that manner.

The employee said he/she has been told of verbal abuse, where staffers would curse at the veterans repeatedly.

However, the employee said he/she has not personally heard the verbal abuse.

The caregiver said the administration retaliates against whistle-blowers among the staff.

“If you do a grievance or something like that is done in confidentiality, they go back and they show the person who wrote it and what they wrote.”

“A lot of people over there, they know and they see stuff, from the nurses on down, they don’t want to speak up, put their hand up and lose their job.”

However, he/she said the practice has not resulted in anyone losing their job to his/her knowledge.

The employee said failing to hire an adequate number of CNA’s, a lack of administrative transparency, and constant staff turnover is translating directly to veteran mistreatment.

He/she said any given shift there are three to four CNA’s working on a wing, five if it’s a “lucky day.”

He/she said it would take four to five CNA’s per wing to adequately serve the population.

The facility holds roughly 150 veterans.

“If you don’t have adequate, enough staff there, how can you sit there and tend to everybody properly?”

He/she said as a result, veterans in need of incontinence care are being neglected.

“The [veteran] was in there living in feces. He was like scratching and digging and saw where he wiped his hand on the cover. When I walked in the room he was holding his hand out, and he can’t speak.”

“And I was like it’s not right. I’m tired of cleaning up after the last shift when I come in. It’s not right.”

He/she said at times nurses would ask CNA’s to give the veterans prescription medicine, something they are not authorized to do.

He/she said the administration consistently failed to tell the laundry staff of the presence of bed bugs and scabies in the facility.

He/she said as a result, workers were calling out sick.

“[The workers] were kind of refusing because they didn’t want to get it and take it home to their kids.”

This image is captured by "Employee #1" who claims laundry workers would call out sick, leaving...
This image is captured by "Employee #1" who claims laundry workers would call out sick, leaving the unit understaffed.(Source: "Employee #1")

He/she said there is significant staff turnover at the home.

“It’s so much stuff going on in there, people are like fed up. They don’t want to be around it. People don’t want to be exposed to the stuff going on, the Scabies.”

When asked what he/she thinks would improve the conditions at the home, the current employee said “somebody needs to come in there and clean house. It starts from the head up.”

The daughter of a veteran who stayed at Tut Fann reached out to WAFF 48 News after the publication of the original report in March.

Her father lived at the facility for a period several months during the last three years and she said he suffers from dementia.

The daughter requested to remain anonymous over concerns she may need to return her father to the facility.

She cited her physical inability to care for him and the costs of placing him in a different home.

WAFF 48 News agreed not to state for this story the identity of the daughter or the father after she was able to provide paperwork showing her father resided at the home.

She said the staff at Tut Fann began mistreating her father almost immediately.

The daughter said the veteran went to the home incontinent, usually requiring a change of underwear roughly twice a day.

She said she checked her father into the home on a Friday, and upon her return two to three days later, she found him with “urine literally dripping down his socks.”

The daughter said he was still in the same pair of underwear from that Friday.

She said she talked to administrators and nurses in response to the incident, but the staff failed to consistently change her father’s underwear.

The daughter began taking photos of how many pairs of depends were in her fathers closet to see if the number was going down.

She said that led to CNA’s hiding pairs in the veteran’s roommates closet and around the room.

“They learned pretty quick that I was coming in there, and when I was coming in. So they would at least change him sometimes, some of them would.”

“Some of them would just lie to me and say they changed him and I’d go and check him and he was soaking wet.”

The daughter said when her father entered the home, he was capable of walking with a walker, was at a healthy weight, and his skin was free of infections.

She said by the end of his stay at the home, the father’s ability to walk had significantly diminished, he had lost roughly 30 pounds and had suffered from four infections (two infected toes, a yeast infection on his stomach, and a yeast infection on his penis).

“When he left he couldn’t even make it down the end of the hallway,”

“It was a constant fight. They’d lie to me and tell me they’d bathe him.”

The daughter said the staff did not wash her father regularly, did not apply the lotions needed to prevent the infections, and failed to ensure he was eating a healthy diet.

She said she would regularly take her father out to lunch for pleasure and a healthy meal. She said the staff would regularly provide the veteran with cookies or other “junk” upon his request.

She claimed her father became accustomed to the sweets and became increasingly hostile to eating other, healthier foods. She said the staff would not ensure he was eating a nutritional meal.

“They were putting food in front of him because he could eat on his own, and they’d turn around and walk away.”

The daughter said she finally took the veteran out of the home after a close friends’ husband (who was also a patient at the home) was hospitalized for a broken hip.

She said photos of the bruises extended from the thigh to the ribs.

“She personally told me that the surgeon had said there was no way he fell out of the wheelchair and had this amount of damage....the surgeon said somebody kicked him. This is not a fall.”

The daughter said she did not see the bruises in person, but in a picture.

She said she thinks under-staffing is the root of the issues at the home, and even said a number of nurses and CNA’s did care to her father diligently.

However, she said one of the good CNA’s or nurses would be punished for raising treatment concerns with the administration.

“Every time [the nurse] tried to report any of the CNA’s for not doing anything, she got in trouble with the admin, the admin came down on her. The CNA’s were telling her ‘you can’t do anything to us.’"

The daughter said the administration fostered a negative environment at the home, and should be replaced.

Tut Fann is part of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs system. The Alabama VA owns and governs the home, but currently contracts its operations to HMR Veterans Services (headquartered in South Carolina).

The current employee said the Tut Fann staff received a text message the day of the original report reading:

“Alert: While a misguided news story tries to paint an incorrect picture the ADVA (Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs) and HMR appreciates and supports the excellent care you provide to the Veterans everyday."

Employees at the Tut Fann nursing home received this text the day of the original report of...
Employees at the Tut Fann nursing home received this text the day of the original report of veterans mistreatment.(Source: Current employee)

HMR’s Regional Vice President Scott Hurst oversees the company’s Alabama operations.

Hurst sent this statement the day after this story’s publication:

"The comments and pictures shared in these stories do not accurately portray the story of the Floyd E. Tut Fann State Veterans Home. The excellent care and countless good deeds inside the walls of Tut Fann on the part of our veterans, families, staff and volunteers are the real story. Together with our caregivers and officials who lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, we are deeply committed to providing the best possible living environment for our veterans.

When we learned of these allegations, we immediately conducted an internal investigation to determine if they were factual. And, while we are required to maintain confidentiality regarding the personal details of specific circumstances involving our residents, we can assure you that these were isolated incidents that were quickly identified and resolved.

Tut Fann, like all long-term care facilities, is highly regulated and must comply with strict reporting standards and procedures. When an incident is reported, we conduct a thorough investigation, which includes interviewing staff, residents, family members and, in some cases, examinations by physicians and other clinical staff. We also report the investigation to the Alabama Department of Public Health and, when warranted, local law enforcement.

Our staffing levels at Tut Fann veterans home far exceed the minimum requirements, and we work hard to maintain a quality workforce as we care for the needs of our veterans.

We have procedures in place that invite feedback from employees and families and ensure concerns are addressed in a timely manner. We encourage the free expression of questions and concerns and offer methods to ensure anonymity in cases where it is desired. We respond to all incidents, injuries and concerns with the same thorough approach.

We will continue to work closely with officials as reviews are conducted, while ensuring our veterans continue to receive excellent care and compassion. We appreciate the unwavering support of so many in this community."

Scott Hurst, Regional VP of Alabama Operations, HMR Veterans Services Inc.
Scott Hurst, Regional VP of Alabama Operations, HMR Veterans Services Inc.
(Source: ADVA Website)

Alabama VA Commissioner Kent Davis said he visited the facility on March 11 in response to the original report. He later stated some individuals at the facility had advance knowledge of his visit.

As a result of that visit, he sent WAFF a statement which stated the commissioner spent “several hours at the home,” looking into the claims of the former employees.

The statement read in part:

“I am confident that the facility staff and our department staff have protocols in place to quickly and effectively address the concerns that are raised. I am confident that these protocols were followed regarding the specific allegations mentioned in your reporting.”

He said the visit “was not an inspection” but was an effort to familiarize himself with the home.

Davis assumed the role of commissioner in February.

In the days leading up to this publication, WAFF 48 News conducted a Skype interview with Davis.

He said he stands by the above-cited “confidence” comment based on his experience at the home, but is taking the allegations of physical abuse seriously.

Davis said he has requested an independent investigation by the Alabama Department of Public Health into the home, and contacted Governor Ivey’s office about the allegations.

ADPH Program Director Mia Sadler sent the following message:

“Anyone who has specific information about allegations of physical abuse should be strongly encouraged to call our complaint hotline. 1-800-356-9596. The more information we have about the allegations, the more likely we will be able to thoroughly investigate the allegations. If they wish to be anonymous, we will protect their anonymity to the extent allowed by law. I cannot comment on any potential future survey of this home, as all of these surveys are unannounced.”

Davis said his office will provide any help or resources necessary.

“Now that we’ve asked for a third party to be involved in this, I think all (of the allegations) should be involved. They should take a look at all of that to see if there are indeed systemic issues in addition to the specific allegations that were raised," he said.

He said he has been in contact with representatives from HMR Veterans Services and it has been cooperative in the investigation.

Davis said Alabama is in the re-bidding process for the contractor that oversees the state VA homes, but it’s “speculative” to tie that process and the investigation together.

“Let’s not put the cart before the horse. We need to get through the investigation process first, and we’ll deal separately with the completely different issue of the contract re-bid process,” he said.

Davis stressed the department is taking the allegations “very seriously” and encourages anyone with concerns or comments to reach out.

The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs can be contacted via:

  • It’s Montgomery Office (334-242-5077)
  • It’s Madison County Office (256-532-1662)
  • Or its website

Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) requested a federal investigation into the home on Monday.

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