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Criminal investigators are reviewing the death of a severely disabled man who drowned when a supervisor at a state-operated group home left him alone in a bathtub while she took a phone call.
The case is being watched closely by Gov. Mark Dayton and has led to an internal review of how the state Department of Human Services (DHS) oversees services for nearly 800 vulnerable residents in state-run homes.
Gerald Edward Hyska, 56, died Aug. 28, shortly after the incident at the New Beginnings home in Braham, Minn., about 60 miles north of Minneapolis. Hyska, who grew up with 12 siblings in northeast Minneapolis, was born with severe brain damage and could not talk, feed himself or walk, according to his sister, Lori Rush. He suffered from cerebral palsy.
He never should have been left alone in a bathtub, she said.
"What a horrible way to die," Rush said. "Drowning is not a very nice way to go, but I don't know how long he was under. How long was he left alone? Does that all come out?"
Police are reviewing the actions of Devra Stiles, a supervisor at the home, who was bathing Hyska when she was interrupted by a phone call.
"She basically forgot he was there," said Braham Police Chief Robert Knowles, who said the exact amount of time Hyska was left alone "is in dispute right now."
Stiles, 62, declined to comment when contacted at her home in Pine City, but her husband said his wife didn't leave Hyska alone for long.
"She answered the phone, said 'I got someone in the tub.' Talked to them for a minute or two," Tim Stiles said. "It wasn't like a long, drawn-out conversation."
Only employee on duty
Tim Stiles said his wife was working alone the night of the drowning. He said he doesn't know what the call was about, but he said answering the phone was an important part of her duties because it could involve the delivery of medicine or some other critical issue.
At the time of the accident, there were three other severely disabled residents living at the home.
Stiles said his wife is a caring person with an excellent state work record that stretches back 37 years, but he said cutbacks at the state and county level have made her job more difficult. He said his wife, who went on leave after the incident, had to lift residents in and out of the tub by herself, with no lifts or equipment to help.
"When you're assigned to take care of that many clients all by yourself, something could happen because you have to spend time with one and the other one could have a seizure or fall and get hurt or whatever," Stiles said.
State officials refused to provide details of the incident, citing the ongoing investigation and privacy laws, but DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said the "unnatural death" of any person under the care of the state is "totally unacceptable."
"If care was inappropriate and contributed to a client's death, we will acknowledge that, and we will hold anyone who's accountable strictly responsible for that," Jesson said.
After the incident, Jesson ordered a review of training, supervision and hiring practices to make sure clients are protected. Jesson said she told investigators to make the case their "highest priority," not only to determine what happened but to "make sure it doesn't happen again."
Dayton echoed those assurances, declaring there will be consequences for anyone who violated procedures.
"My administration will do everything possible to ensure every person in the care of the state receives the highest standard of care," he said in a statement.
Rush said her family has received few answers from the state or police about what happened. In fact, she said family members were instructed not to contact the home and to wait for answers. She said she didn't know who was being investigated until informed by the Star Tribune.
"This is really hard for me because I really liked Devra," Rush said. "I know she really cared for him."
Tim Stiles said his wife is distraught and undergoing counseling for what happened. He said Hyska was one of her favorite clients and that she was close to his family. He said she would like to tell family members how sorry she is about the incident, but she can't talk because of legal issues.
"This is like losing a child to her," Stiles said. "It was a tragic accident. So far there's absolutely no charges at this time. Any statements she gave that night she was in total shock and duress."
Stiles said his wife has had trouble sleeping since the events of that tragic night.
"You always do 'what if,'" he said. "Or 'would have,' 'should have,' 'could have.'"
Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777
State regulators have failed to protect some of Minnesota's vulnerable citizens from being victimized by their caregivers. Read our series at www.startribune.com/violated