Terrifying ride, worker's DWI raise alarm on state care

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2011 - 12:37 PM

Another vulnerable adult endangered by state worker may bring changes in Department of Human Services division responsible for the care.

Graham Olson

A drunken state caregiver took a developmentally disabled man on a terrifying and potentially deadly van ride in excess of 100 miles per hour through the Brainerd area last month in another incident that's raising questions about the quality of care Minnesota provides to vulnerable adults.

Graham Marshall Olson, who has a history of speeding tickets, also left behind two state clients who were in his care at a restaurant where they were part of the cleaning crew, according to a Crow Wing County sheriff's report on the Sept. 4 arrest. Olson, 27, worked in a state program that helps developmentally disabled adults hold jobs, including providing them with transportation.

Olson was driving so recklessly he nearly crashed head-on into at least two vehicles before a deputy was able to stop him after he drove over a median, records show.

The harrowing incident came a week after the Aug. 28 drowning death of a disabled man in a bathtub at a state-operated group home in Braham, which has led to a criminal charge against the state employee on duty that night. Last week, a state worker entrusted to care for vulnerable adults was fired after being charged in a violent burglary in Rochester.

All three incidents involve workers hired by the state as part of its program to provide direct care or services to more than 10,000 of Minnesota's most vulnerable residents. The workers staff group homes, psychiatric hospitals and other facilities across Minnesota.

Lucinda Jesson, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) commissioner, said that the incidents point to the need for new leadership in her agency's services division, where all of the employees involved worked. "We need to raise the bar on the level of care we provide for clients and make sure we have the highest value for taxpayers," she said.

In recent weeks, Jesson has publicly expressed concern about the way the division has been operating. Months ago, she made the decision to transfer its current CEO, Mike Tessneer, to a different job in DHS's compliance unit once his replacement is hired. Jesson said the recent troubles, including the incident with Olson, reinforced for her the "need to make changes in the direction in leadership and to get us to do that quicker and faster."

"Given the population we serve, given the number of employees, some things are going to happen," Jesson said. "It's how do we act to prevent them as much as possible and how do we respond to them?"

After nine years in the job, Tessneer said in an interview on Friday that he is ready for a change. He said he has been on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as the division, with its 3,500 employees, has moved from a relatively centralized operation to one that provides care and services at nearly 200 locations across Minnesota.

Three finalists for his position will interview on Monday with Jesson and other DHS officials in St. Paul. "I think change in any organization after nine years has a positive side to it," Tessneer said.

The three employees involved in the recent incidents in Tessneer's division have been removed from their positions and are no longer employed by the state.

The Star Tribune has learned that the department also has launched a review following Tuesday's arrest of the state worker charged in a violent burglary. Court records from an incident in February show that she admitted to police that she was addicted to opiate. The department is now reviewing whether any prescription drugs were stolen or missing from patients at the state group home where she worked.

A confused, scared passenger

In the drunken van ride incident, Olson has already pleaded guilty to DWI and been sentenced to three years' probation, court records show. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

When DHS hired him in February 2010, Olson already had three speeding tickets on his record between 2003 and 2009, records show. Part of his state duties as a job coach to vulnerable adults involved driving them to and from work. The red van he was driving had the capacity to carry 15 passengers.

Jesson said she did not have answers for how someone with Olson's driving record was in such a position. He was hired before she took the helm at DHS in January.

"But I certainly don't want anyone to think I think that is acceptable, because I don't," Jesson said, adding that among the improvements she wants to see in the division is its hiring practices.

By the time a sheriff's deputy was finally able to pull him over around 9:15 a.m. on Sept. 4, Olson had driven the van south of the city of Garrison, some 20 miles away from Brainerd. His blood-alcohol content of .21 was more than twice the legal limit and he fell against the van as he got out, records show. He told the deputy that his job was to drive disabled people around, records show. His lone passenger described to authorities how a routine ride home from work had turned very frightening and dangerous. The disabled man said he was confused by why Olson drove him all that way.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777

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