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Originally published April 12, 2010 at 5:54 PM | Page modified April 14, 2010 at 9:21 AM

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DSHS begins reforming the adult-family home industry

The Washington state Department of Social and Health Services makes a worthy start toward cracking down on adult-family homes with nearly a dozen new laws and reforms.

THE state Department of Social and Health Services proposes nearly a dozen new laws and reforms, a worthy start to addressing rampant abuse and exploitation in adult-family homes.

As Michael J. Berens reported in heartbreaking detail in the Seattle Times series, "Seniors for Sale," elderly residents of some adult-family homes are imprisoned in their rooms, drugged into submission or denied medical treatment. Home operators cited for abuses or neglect too easily closed up shop and opened another home in the state.

DSHS officials wisely seek substantive change. First, they want to change impressions of adult-family homes as profit-making ventures The agency has chosen a smart way to do it: hiking license fees tenfold. Currently, prospective operators pay a $100 fee and take a few classes to enter a lightly regulated industry where they can charge residents from $2,000 to $5,000 a month.

Adult-family homes are a welcomed housing option for seniors and people with disabilities, but low license fees made it too easy to enter the industry. No wonder the state was issuing on average one new adult-family home license a day.

Another area where the agency seeks to add teeth is enforcement. An increase in civil fines, currently capped at $100 a day, is a good start. But the state must be more willing to levy tough fines on violators. Some of the most egregious cases outlined in "Seniors for Sale," involved operators whose violations initially met with only warnings or light fines.

A slew of other changes from posting violations on DSHS' Web site to requiring investigators pursuing complaints interview all residents of a home — are important changes.

DSHS should not overlook guidance from the state's long-term care ombudsman. Louise Ryan has outlined other problems facing the industry, including residents having trouble getting their deposits returned from operators and a need for written procedures similar to those used by nursing homes.

DSHS has made an important start. The state Legislature should take these proposals seriously.

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