Adults Locked in Philly Basement Is Shocking, But Not New

Many others suffer at the hands of supposed caregivers

It is hard to imagine how Linda Ann Weston, who allegedly kept four mentally challenged adults chained in a basement so she could collect their Social Security checks, could be so callous. Based on her prior criminal history and the remarks of her relatives, she sounds like a sociopath.

But she doesn’t sound entirely unfamiliar. The truth is, there are already plenty of places in Pennsylvania where mentally challenged people are kept in subpar conditions in exchange for their Social Security checks. They’re called boarding homes.

There are currently 83 “personal care homes” in Philadelphia County listed on the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s website, but there are more than that, many of which operate under the radar or illegally. Even those with full licenses can have violations that would give you pause if you were sending a loved one to live there: untrained staffers delivering medications; one resident’s paperwork mixed up with another’s; emergency exits that aren’t accessible.

But those are tiny, run-of-the-mill violations. Many violations are much more alarming. You can look at the violation records yourself on the site. I just did a very quick look to see if there were any outstanding problems. There always are. Check out the for-profit Care International Services in West Philly managed by Olivette Smith-Ligon. The home has violations going back to 2009. On June 29th of this year, the state issued an order for emergency relocation of residents after charges that a staff person slapped a resident and, on multiple occasions, grabbed a resident by the throat as if to choke the resident. Residents were berated by staffers and were locked out of their home or forced to leave at times they didn’t want to. One violation describes a resident whose medication was discontinued for no apparent reason; he ended up in the hospital due to the staff’s negligence. As of September 22nd, the state revoked Smith-Ligon’s license to operate the house. But on the website, the current license expiration date is January 13, 2012. If I had to guess based on past experience, I’d bet Olivette Smith-Ligon will own a boarding home again. I’ve seen it before. For a lot of people, it’s easy money.

A few years ago, I went to talk to a woman I’ll call Vanessa at a boarding home. The staffer there told me Vanessa was stinky and lazy. He said she always wet the bed. Sometimes to be nice he’d change her bedding, he said, but most often he just ignored it. So she really smells, he warned me. He lit incense all around the room before Vanessa came in, and he wouldn’t allow her to sit down—despite the fact that she was disabled and walked with a cane—because he didn’t want his chair to get dirty. Flies buzzed around her; her clothes were filthy. She wept as I sat with her. The staffer constantly said bad things about her in front of other people, and she was humiliated.

Most of Vanessa’s money in the world—her Social Security checks—went to this man’s boss so that she could live in this broken-down building, be “cared for” by abusive staff and sleep in her own filth. When I checked with colleagues, I was told that the residence was not, in fact, licensed by the state. The woman who managed it had been told to stop running boarding homes, but she opened another one anyway. How different from Linda Ann Weston does she sound?

I have a suggestion for everyone appalled by the plight of those four adults in Tacony. Look at the Personal Care Home Directory on the website of the Department of Public Welfare. You can enter your zip code and find ones near you. Check them out. Do they look clean and safe on the outside? I’m not saying you have to park your car out front and turn into a P.I., but if you feel something isn’t right, contact the Southeast Field Office (for Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties). Here’s the info: Laura Cipriani, Acting Licensing Director, 1001 Sterigere Street, Norristown State Hospital Building #2, Room 161, Norristown, PA 19401; 610-270-1137; 866-711-4115 (toll-free); email: