Anxiety hits close to home: Northern Lakes, Real Life may be in violation of court order

·6 min read

May 23—TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Lakes Community Mental Health and a subcontractor may have violated a court order, after a woman who receives services in her home reported a caregiver to police for disrobing and making sexualized comments.

"It is traumatizing to even talk about it," said Cody Masson, a woman with cerebral palsy who uses a power wheelchair and requires round-the-clock care.

"It's getting to the point where I don't want to wake up," Masson said. "I don't mean I want to hurt myself. I mean every morning the second I wake up, I'm flooded with anxiety."

Masson said she told police the caregiver made a comment about his penis, asked if she'd "consider a heterosexual relationship" and said a problem with his suspenders caused him to be naked in a spare bedroom when she entered to retrieve a cellphone.

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg confirmed she'd reviewed a police report about the incident that had been forwarded to her office from a Grand Traverse County Sheriff's deputy.

While the male caregiver's actions were improper and even bizarre, Moeggenberg said, they did not rise to the level of criminality.

"He was very inappropriate, I understand her concerns and I understand why law enforcement was called, but I can't charge anything criminal," Moeggenberg said. In a letter to Masson Wednesday, the prosecutor invited her to request a personal protection order, if she felt unsafe.

Joanie Blamer, Northern Lakes chief population for mental health services, said the organization could not comment on specific care provided to individuals because of federal and state privacy laws.

The organization is committed to the health and safety of those who it serves, she said.

"We take any allegation of misconduct by any of our providers or their employees, very seriously," Blamer said. "Any report of misconduct by a consumer is addressed as required under the law and the relevant reporting procedures."

Masson said the caregiver, employed by Real Life Living Services, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit with an office in Cadillac, no longer works with her, though she was not sure whether he was still employed by the agency.

A call to Real Life Living Cadillac Branch Manager Krystin Daniels was not returned Thursday.

An agreement between Northern Lakes and Real Life states Real Life must provide them with the names of all staff, their shifts worked and the results of a criminal background check.

Northern Lakes CEO Karl Kovacs previously said staffing challenges during the pandemic have impacted home care services nationwide, including Northern Lakes, and that the agency administrators were doing what they could, including increasing hourly wages.

Blamer confirmed Saturday that those staffing challenges have continued unabated, as have efforts by Northern Lakes to address them.

"We continue to engage with our current network of providers, and explore new opportunities to expand our provider network, to address staffing issues when they arise," she said.

Northern Lakes contracted with Real Life Living Services beginning in October 2019, documents show, hiring the agency to provide staff for basic living assistance — called community living services — to Northern Lakes clients — called "consumers."

Jay Zelonock, an attorney who represented Masson in a 2020 lawsuit against Northern Lakes, said this latest incident was the most alarming of several new complaints Masson shared with him in recent weeks.

"Legally, we're investigating whether the responsibility is on CMH's end or with the agency they contracted," Zelonock said. "My expectation is that all parties, and especially a government agency, would comply with the summary agreement we reached in March."

Zelenock said he is in negotiations with other Northern Lakes consumers, who contacted him about their problems receiving services after reading about Masson's lawsuit in the Record-Eagle.

"We are not looking for perfection," Zelenock said. "We said that in court. We understand things happen, a car breaks down or someone gets sick. But this appears to be a continuing pattern."

Masson said prior to calling police, she contacted Northern Lakes' Recipient Rights office and Adult Protective Services. Her complaints come weeks after a judge signed an order mandating Masson receive services she's entitled to under the state's mental health code.

She sued NLCMH and two staff members July 13, 2020, after caregivers regularly began either not showing up for their shifts or providing a substandard and even a dangerous level of care, including several documented incidents involving a worker who abused alcohol.

Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer signed a consent judgment for a permanent injunction March 31, ordering Northern Lakes to provide Masson 20 hours per day of community living services in her home, without disruption.

Court documents show attorney Haider Kazim, who represented Northern Lakes, had argued the responsibility to provide care fell on Real Life Living Services. Northern Lakes, Kazim said, had contracted with the nonprofit in good faith and had made "every reasonable and appropriate effort" to provide Masson services.

Elsenheimer disagreed, signed the court order and Masson said her care improved.

Masson kept a log which shows within a few weeks, shifts were missed and staff sometimes did not show up or arrived late. The incident with the male caregiver frightened her, she said.

Masson, 32, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, and in addition to her use of a wheelchair and a body brace, needs help dressing, cooking, eating, showering, using the bathroom and transferring in and out of her wheelchair.

Masson uses a mobility tool called a "Hoyer Lift" to transfer in and out of her wheelchair. She said the same caregiver who made inappropriate sexual comments was physically incapable of providing the care she needs and once left her in the lift for nearly an hour, after telling Masson he needed to rest his back.

Such incidents indicate staff may not be providing care to Masson in the "appropriate and reliable manner," as mandated by the judge.

Between October 1, 2019 and Jan. 31, 2021, documents show Northern Lakes paid Real Life $299,757.06 and served 35 people. The contract between the two agencies expires Sept. 30, though contract language states it will be automatically renewed for one year "without notice or action."

Masson has a bachelor's degree in psychology, is working on her master's degree and is writing a novel. A friend has given her an incentive — every time she completes 100 pages of writing, the friend will help plan an outing.

On Thursday afternoon, Masson joined friends at Taproot Cider House in downtown Traverse City.

"Being here I can forget my anxiety briefly, but when I get home, it will come back," she said.

"I've just gotten to the point where I'm not going to be silent. Other people are in this same situation and I'm talking for them, too," Masson added."I'm treated like a piece of furniture and I'm fed up. Something has to change."