Disability Community Worries Lack Of Services Is Driving Desperate Acts

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ATLANTA — In early January, workers at a nonprofit that cares for Georgians with disabilities were stunned to learn that one of their former clients was killed in a suspected murder-suicide.

It wasn’t just that police believe Megan Frix, 26, was killed by her father. But she was the second client of Creative Enterprises Forsyth whose death was possibly caused by a family caregiver.

Even though such homicides are rare, Creative Enterprises staff point to these deaths as the worst possible outcome of a system that’s overstrained and under-resourced. In particular, they question whether providing occasional 24-hour care for people with disabilities could have prevented the tragedies.

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While Creative Enterprises offers day services to people with disabilities, there are few places in Forsyth County that have around-the-clock care. An overnight stay can provide a welcome relief for families who are struggling to care for an adult son or daughter.

Lisa Bennett, manager of Creative Enterprises Forsyth and Dawson, knew both the women who died. She says she’s now living in constant fear that another person with a disability she knows will die.

“I have two clients here who I’m extremely worried about. I’ll leave it at that,” she said.

It’s still not clear exactly what happened in either death, and in Frix’s case, the investigation is still ongoing. The earlier case, in 2019, resulted in a caregiver being convicted for the murder of a woman with Down syndrome.

State Sen. Sally Harrell, who oversaw legislative hearings into the problems plaguing the disability community, spoke about Frix’s death on the Senate floor Jan. 13, one week after the murder-suicide took place. Police believe that Jerry Frix, 58, killed his daughter with autism and then himself at his home in Cumming, she said. Harrell said Frix’s wife had died a few years ago and he had quit his job to help care for Megan.

Although the Frix family received services at home to help care for Megan, Harrell believes the support was simply not enough.

“Extreme situations can cause people to do things they would not typically do, and as a state, we bear the responsibility for failing this family,” she told her fellow lawmakers.

In an interview, Harrell said that the Frix’s story is heart wrenching but unsurprising. Harrell said she’s personally spoken to caregivers who told her they’ve contemplated suicide.

“Parents saw (Megan’s death) as a symptom of a system that is broken, and not providing the support that it needs to provide,” Harrell said. “They said this kind of thing is going to continue to happen because these families are overwhelmed.”

A system in crisis

National figures estimate that roughly 226,000 households in the state are supporting a person with a disability. Right now, nearly 20,000 people receive disability services from the state, according to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). Advocates have said Georgia’s waiting list for those services is currently at 7,000 people, although state officials say this figure also includes people who do not yet qualify for services.

Data from DBHDD shows how unusual caregiver killings are. Three people who received disability services were killed in 2020, none in 2021 and one person in 2022. The exact circumstances of the deaths are unknown.

For every tragedy that makes the headlines, there are exponentially more stories of struggling family caregivers that are never told, said John Zoller, a parent of an adult with disabilities. Zoller said he knows of parents who are crumbling from the stress of caring for an adult child with disabilities. Some parents walk away from the responsibility.

“There are a lot of parents, who in lieu of causing harm to their child and maybe to themselves, they just walk away. They disengage,” said Zoller, who also serves as the board chair for Georgia Options, a nonprofit that provides services for people with disabilities. “They leave an organization or the state to pick up the pieces.”

Harrell, a Democrat, and her Republican co-chair Sen. John Albers led a series of study committee hearings last fall that uncovered how the state’s system for people with disabilities is in crisis.

According to testimony in the Senate Study Committee on People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, places that care for Georgians with disabilities are closing down, and the agencies that do exist report they struggle to keep staff. All the while, thousands of residents with disabilities are competing for state-funded services even though there aren’t enough workers to provide them.

State officials are working to strengthen the safety net and have put in motion a plan to boost wages for professional caretakers from about $10.63 an hour to $15.18 an hour. That proposal still has layers of state and federal approval to go through, and it could be a year before it’s in place. Some providers fear the proposed increase will not be enough to stabilize the thinning workforce.

In addition, Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed providing services to another 250 people with disabilities as part of the state’s spending plan and the legislature is considering adding even more. But this is just a fraction of what’s needed to clear the waiting list.

In December, Harrell’s study committee recommended that Georgia go much further: It is petitioning the legislature to fund disability services for 2,400 more people in next year’s budget.

But the extra funding may not do much good until there are enough workers to provide those services. The shortage has meant that even some people with disabilities who have been approved for new services can’t yet get them.

DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner said in an interview that the lack of workers is the “No. 1 issue” his department is confronting right now. Tanner is hopeful the proposed rate increase will help bolster the workforce, and he recently spoke with two providers that said they would expand services in Georgia if the wage hike goes through.

“It’s long overdue,” Tanner said of the wage increases. “And it is hampering our ability to grow.”

A murder in Forsyth County

Amy Hughes, a former client of Creative Enterprises Forsyth, was found dead in 2019. Hughes had died reportedly of natural causes. But Bennett, who had previously cared for her, didn’t believe the findings.

Bennett says that, at her urging, investigators further examined Hughes’ death and subsequently filed charges. Two years later, a jury found a family friend who cared for Hughes guilty of murder by exposing her to heroin. The medical examiner was unable to determine how Hughes ingested the heroin.

The family friend, Jessica Eubanks, is now serving a life sentence in prison.

“That was a relief. It was the news we wanted to hear,” Bennett said about hearing the guilty verdict read aloud in court. “But we still didn’t have Amy.”

Eubanks is now appealing her case to the state Supreme Court. Her lawyers are arguing the evidence was insufficient, and that her murder conviction should be reversed.

After Megan Frix’s death, Creative Enterprises posted the news on social media to say this was the second client of theirs to die apparently at the hands of a caregiver. They framed the deaths of Frix and Hughes as a failure of disability support services in Georgia.

“No one talks about the reality of caring for a special needs individual,” according to a Facebook post from the nonprofit in January. “It is hard, and it is often very isolating. We have to do better as a community.”

That message resonated with caregivers who are exhausted and consumed by their responsibilities. In the hundreds of comments, one theme was woven throughout: Not only are there not enough services for people with disabilities, but resources for their caregivers are almost nonexistent.

Many parts of Georgia do not have adequate services, said Leigh McIntosh, executive director of Creative Enterprises, which has programs in Forsyth, Dawson and Gwinnett counties. Out of the three counties where her organization operates, both Forsyth and Dawson have few overnight, residential services. Across all three counties, Creative Enterprises has 250 people, most of whom are in Gwinnett County.

Another issue, she said, is that organizations face too many roadblocks when trying to become a provider. A group in Forsyth has attempted to become a residential program, but it hasn’t been able to get the green light from the state.

“Unless we get the word out and people understand what a great need there is, nothing is going to change,” she said. “In these communities where there aren’t services, the people with disabilities are even more vulnerable because many times their families just do not have any resources, and they’re at their wit’s end.”

People experiencing a mental health crisis can call 9-8-8, a national suicide and crisis hotline, which offers 24-hour confidential support.

© 2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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