ORLANDO, Fla. – Paige Elizabeth Lunsford had to be transferred to Carlton Palms Education Center.

The disability center that was treating the 14-year-old girl with autism in South Florida was unable to continue doing so because of the severity of her self-injuring behaviors. Ten days after arriving at the Central Florida facility she was found dead.

Paige is one of many patients that ended up at Carlton Palms, the state’s largest licensed residential and educational center for people with severe disabilities, after being turned away from other care centers. The for-profit facility is the only one in Florida that offers a range of services for children and adults with developmental disabilities who have extreme behaviors.

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That’s because a loophole in state law only allows licenses for facilities in business before 1989 to operate. Lawmakers are now challenging the statute and hoping to pave the way for new facilities to open and compete against the center, which received $23.4 million in state funding in 2014-15 to care for Medicaid-eligible wards.

“There is a complete monopoly on care for these disabled patients,” said state Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who sponsored a bill targeting the facility. “My goal is to repeal that statute and open up the process to anyone that wants to apply. It’s all part of the free market, and competition will serve the community, or in this case the patients, better.”

Rodrigues’ legislation, House Bill 4037, would repeal the section of law that requires a facility to have been in business before 1989. It has passed through committees unanimously.

Carlton Palms, which serves 129 adults and 35 children just south of Mount Dora, has been named in nearly 150 abuse or neglect complaints over the past 15 years. The complaints include alleged sex offenses and beatings, a scalding and Paige’s death on July 6, 2013, due to dehydration.

Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges in Paige’s death in July, concluding the evidence didn’t fit a “culpable negligence” charge, which would have accused the caregivers of exposing her to injury.

The medical examiner’s office said her dehydration was caused by a severe but treatable gastrointestinal infection but found “nothing apparently inappropriate or egregious” in the care used to treat the teen.

A worker told investigators Paige, who couldn’t speak because of her disability, had been throwing up for five days “constantly, like a waterfall,” and was often bound by restraints. She was not taken to a hospital until she was dead.

Paige’s family has since filed a wrongful-death action suit against Carlton Palms.

The state Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which is responsible for protecting Florida’s children and adults with severe disabilities and licenses Carlton Palms, threatened to shut down the facility several times over the years. The agency temporarily blocked the facility from admitting new patients after Paige’s death.

Carlton Palms was able to continue operating after making a number of changes and paying a $10,000 fine.

“We’ve been very involved with Carlton Palms,” agency spokeswoman Melanie Etters said. “If we have any concerns we can go in unannounced and drop in to make sure our customers are safe and healthy… We inspect the facility at least once a month, so we’re in there quite frequently.”

While Rodrigues’ bill moves its way through the Florida House, another piece of legislation is moving through the state Senate that also targets the facility.

Senate Bill 7054 would require the facility to record and keep surveillance footage for at least 60 days for officials to monitor. It also calls on Carlton Palms to conduct clinical reviews of patients who have stayed there for more than two years, since the facility acts as a temporary placement program. The review would be to make sure placement at the center was still appropriate.

Etters and others at the agency declined to comment on the pending legislation.

Carlton Palms and AdvoServ, its Delaware-based corporate parent, did not respond to calls for comment. An official with Carlton Palms hung up twice when the Sentinel called about the legislation.

AdvoServ’s CEO Bob Bacon wrote in a letter printed in the Lake Sentinel in January that families “have turned to Carlton Palms when other providers were unprepared, unable, and often unwilling, to handle such challenging” individuals.

He added in the letter, written in response to an opinion column about the facility, that “on occasion, when there is imminent danger of severe injury, our staff use restraint techniques and specialized equipment. These techniques and tools are closely regulated and approved by state agencies and families to protect everyone from harm – especially the individual exhibiting the behavior.”

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