ENID, Okla. — Mable Stone spent a decade providing direct care at Northern Oklahoma Resource Center of Enid, taking care of people like Gary Wilkinson.
Wilkinson died a little more than a week after he was moved out of NORCE into a community home and cared for by a private company.
When reached Friday, Stone had just learned of Wilkinson’s death through a newspaper report. She said her coworkers at NORCE kept him alive for years, said Stone, who left NORCE as part of staff reductions earlier this year.
“He went to emergency room after emergency room, and we thought he’d never come back. And he did,” she said.
It’s for people like him that Stone wishes the state would leave one section of the institution open for the most medically fragile.
After Wilkinson left, there were only a handful of other developmentally disabled people at the Enid facility. Soon, they will also move into community placement as part of a push by state government to close down NORCE and its sister facility in Pauls Valley.
Wilkinson, 40, died soon after leaving NORCE. His uncle and guardian, Carl Wilkinson, said he died from pneumonia.
Another former NORCE direct-care worker, Barbara Duncan, believes the private-care providers are too inexperienced to handle former NORCE clients. That, she said, could have contributed to eight deaths in community homes since last year.
“These people would have probably lived a lot longer,” Duncan said. “They put all their trust into the care and trusted people who were caring for them, then they get thrown into a situation where they don’t know the staff. Who knows what goes on in these homes?”
Moving to private providers was good for some, Duncan said, but it wasn’t good for all of them.
“It’s just like anybody. There’s people with different needs, and the ones in the hospital are very fragile and they need around-the-clock care, like a hospital situation,” she said.
Despite their experience working with NORCE clients, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services dismissed their claims late Friday, calling them comments from “low-level staff.”
“They’re not going to really understand the difference between institutional and community-based services. They’re really not qualified to weigh in on whether or not one setting is better than another. All they know is what they’ve done at those institutions,” said Sheree Powell.
DHS believes client deaths at both NORCE and the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center in Pauls Valley are not related to the state’s decision to shut down the facilities. Exactly two years ago on Saturday, the DHS Human Services Commission voted to close both facilities.
“There’s no link to them other than the fact that they are getting older in age, they have disabilities and medical conditions,” she said.
Aside from the 17 who died either at the state-run facility or while in private care, she added, there were more than 200 clients moved out into the community setting who are, for the most part, doing well. That includes those who need around-the-clock care and still receive it in the home setting.
Powell also addressed claims that private-care providers aren’t being trained to the level state employees were.
“They have a very robust training program that all the staff must go through. It’s even higher-level training than what the staff at the institutions are required to go through,” she said.
Sulphur resident Gayle Cole has been pleased with the treatment her two wards have experienced since moving out of SORC less than a year ago.
The Enid native worked at SORC and took care of the two men now in their 40s and 50s.
Cole said she was worried at first about how the two would be taken care of because they have intense needs. Now, she said, the company that provides their caretakers is responsive and responsible.
“They’re very willing to do what I want if I insist. But they’re also very willing to discuss with me some other options, which at times I have chosen because they came up with good ideas,” Cole said.
She also likes the idea of letting them live in the community because of their Native American roots. They can go to the Red Earth Festival, visit their medicine man and pursue tribal customs.
“Overall, I’m happy and I think most people have been, too. I would make the same choice again,” said Cole.