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Bellwether Behavioral Health Is Controversial Group Home Operator AdvoServ — With a New Name

After two deaths of teenage residents, AdvoServ has taken a new name, making it harder to follow the media coverage.

A for-profit company that runs group homes for the developmentally and intellectually disabled has changed its name from AdvoServ to Bellwether Behavioral Health, following ProPublica articles on three teenagers’ deaths and staff’s frequent use of physical holds and mechanical restraint devices.

In response to questions from ProPublica, the company said that the name was not the only facet of the company to change.

“Over the past year, a completely new leadership team, with a different management philosophy, initiated a series of transformational changes designed to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the company,” company executives said March 17 in an emailed statement from a spokesman, Brian Burgess. “The new name — Bellwether Behavioral Health — is just an outward reflection of the fundamental changes designed to deliver better outcomes for the individuals in our care.”

Burgess said that the company would not elaborate on the changes in the company’s operations or management philosophy. Reflecting the shift in leadership, all but one of the six top executives listed on its website were hired last year. A New York private equity firm, Wellspring Capital Management, owns the company.

It’s not clear when the company made the name change, which surfaced on its website earlier this year. No press release was circulated. The top hits for a simple Google search for Bellwether Behavioral Health are basic company information and job postings, and don’t include any media coverage about AdvoServ.

The company runs homes for disabled adults and youth with behavioral issues in Delaware, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey. In decades past, people with similar disabilities were often confined in state-run asylums. States eventually shuttered most of those institutions because of deplorable conditions, but some community-based providers like AdvoServ that filled the gap have quietly amassed their own track records of mistreatment. In September 2015, AdvoServ provided care for about 700 adults and children in 77 homes. The company did not respond to requests for a current patient count.

Over the past 18 months, ProPublica has detailed instances of patient abuse and neglect by AdvoServ staff and efforts by its executives to beat back regulation. At the company’s Carlton Palms Educational Facility in Florida, ProPublica reported, staff had used mechanical restraint devices — which most providers stopped using years ago — on residents 28,000 times in less than five years.

The state of Maryland withdrew its clients from AdvoServ’s Delaware homes last year because of substandard living quarters and questions surrounding the death of a 15-year-old girl whom staff members had pinned down. A Delaware Department of Justice spokesman said on March 21 that the agency has closed its investigation into how Janaia Barnhart died. He said there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges.

Janaia’s death in September was the second for the company in little more than three years. Paige Lunsford, who was 14 and had severe autism, died of dehydration at Carlton Palms in 2013 after a night in which she was strapped to a chair and bed while vomiting. A third teenager, Jon Henley, who also had autism, was found dead in his bed at Carlton Palms in 1997 with low levels of anti-seizure medicine in his blood.

On its newly refashioned website, Bellwether also appears to have dropped the name Carlton Palms — instead referring to its location northwest of Orlando simply as its “Educational Center.” Last year, Florida state officials said they had begun to relocate residents from the sprawling 200-bed campus to smaller, community-based homes.

The name change is not the company’s first. It was founded in 1969 as the Au Clair School for autistic children but became controversial a decade later after allegations of abuse — including the horsewhipping of a disabled boy by its founder — were detailed in a Delaware newspaper. Company officials at the time denied that children’s treatment there constituted abuse. By 1997, the company had rechristened itself AdvoServ.

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