First He Was Shot At By Police. Now He Is Being Evicted From His Group Home
MIAMI — Arnaldo Rios-Soto has been involuntarily committed, handcuffed, forcibly restrained, tranquilized and shot at by police.
Now, he’s about to be homeless.
Rios-Soto, 29, has the intellect of a child, but the strength and size of a grown man. He became the troubled face of Florida’s disability program in 2016 when a North Miami police officer, mistaking Rios-Soto’s toy truck for a handgun, shot at him. The officer’s bullet instead struck Rios-Soto’s caregiver, who was sprawled in the street with his hands in the air, shouting, “Why did you shoot me?”
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The photos and video that followed — caregiver Charles Kinsey splayed out on the asphalt with his arms nearly perpendicular to his legs, Rios-Soto grasping his favorite toy — become the iconic image of a story that led the national news.
In the three years since, Rios-Soto has ping-ponged between group homes and psychiatric hospitals in three Florida counties, eventually landing at the Beechdale Home in Orlando. The home’s operator officially informed him last week through a court notice that he’s being evicted, after state disability administrators announced they were cutting Rios-Soto’s care plan.
This year, Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities reduced funding for Rios-Soto to a maximum of $440,000 per year, a 14 percent cut, according to court documents filed by the state — figures that Craig Cook, who operates the home, disputes, saying the trims actually were far deeper. The cuts diminished Rios-Soto’s care plan to three workers to supervise him during waking hours, two to watch him overnight, and one to monitor him during certain daytime training activities.
“It’s all about the money,” said Gladys Soto, Rios-Soto’s mother. “They don’t see that he’s a boy, that he’s a human being, that although he has a man’s body he has a 4-year-old’s mentality, that he has been through so much trauma and so many problems and now that he’s improving they want to move him out and put him in a new home, to start from zero.”
In some ways, Rios-Soto’s is an extraordinarily rare case. He is more than six feet tall, and weighs more than 300 pounds. But his behavior is more like that of an unruly child. The state had been paying more than $500,000 in services to house and care for Rios-Soto, who required three staff members to oversee him around the clock.
But Rios-Soto also is emblematic of a crisis that is afflicting all Floridians with developmental disabilities: Lawmakers have rationed care to the 34,500 clients of a state program that allows people with disabilities to receive services in their homes and communities, while 21,900 other Floridians languish on a wait list.
An amount is budgeted and that is that, regardless of the actual need.
Earlier this year, the Florida legislature made clear it was tired of the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities failing to live within its budget, and state lawmakers, particularly in the House of Representatives, demanded significant cuts.
The program has overspent its allotted budget by more than $150 million in the past two years, caught between federal requirements that it pay for clients’ services — even if they exceed the agency’s budget — and the rising costs of aging Floridians and the additional services they require.
APD, in conjunction with the state Agency for Health Care Administration, recommended last month that the legislature reconsider how it sets aside money for vulnerable people with disabilities, and allocate “appropriate funding sufficient to provide medically necessary services in the most appropriate setting” for everyone in the program.
But administrators also recommended some cuts, as lawmakers demanded: limits on programs that provide in-home caregivers, job training and coaching for people with the capacity to work, and “adult day training” centers that provide a place to go during the day for people who can’t hold jobs. APD also plans to cap services to people outside institutions at $205,000 annually.
The latter change, which would affect about 85 clients, requires either diminishing those clients’ services or moving the clients into institutions like nursing homes.
Gladys Soto said she moved to Orlando from Ocala about a year and a half ago to be closer to her son after his former home, a long-troubled institution, was closed by the state. She lives six minutes away from the Beechdale home, and visits her son every day.
“I take him his snacks. I help him bathe,” she said. “We pray, and when I tuck him in bed and say good night, he stays asleep and I return home. I do that every day without fail. I shave him. I do everything for him, and he feels good because he sees me.”
Rios-Soto has been diagnosed with intellectual impairments as well as autism. Records show he also has poor impulse control, oppositional defiant disorder — a pattern of hostile, defiant behaviors — and has experienced the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Finding a suitable home for him has been challenging for disability administrators.
Rios-Soto once bit off the tip of a caregiver’s finger. More than two dozen staff members or residents at a previous facility needed emergency medical care after being bitten or assaulted by Rios-Soto. He’s destroyed more than $1,000 worth of property. “He will walk out into the road, into oncoming traffic and sit in the middle of the road while vehicles pass by,” said his family’s lawyer, Matthew Dietz.
“Arnaldo has a history of running away from staff suddenly, and it should be noted that he can walk and run for long distances,” Dietz added.
On July 18, 2016, Rios-Soto walked out of his North Miami group home, MacTown, trailed by Kinsey, who was trying to ensure Rios-Soto’s safety. A passerby confused Rios-Soto’s silver toy truck for a handgun and called police. The dispatch that followed set in motion a tragic series of events: Officers were warned to look for a “suicidal person with a gun to his head in the middle of the roadway.”
When officers arrived, Rios-Soto was sitting cross-legged in the road, playing with a light-colored truck. Officers ordered Rios-Soto and Kinsey to sit on the street and raise their hands. Kinsey, who is African American, immediately complied, lying flat on the ground with his arms high in the air. Rios-Soto continued to play with his truck.
Officer Jonathon Aledda took cover 50 yards away from where Kinsey was lying prone on the ground. He fired three rifle shots at Rios-Soto, missing his target and striking Kinsey in the leg. During a trial this past summer, Aledda testified that he thought Rios-Soto was holding Kinsey hostage.
Aledda was convicted of misdemeanor culpable negligence. In July, he was sentenced to one year of probation, 100 hours of community service, and ordered to write a 2,500-word essay on communication and the discharge of weapons. He also lost his job with the North Miami Police Department.
But Rios-Soto’s ordeal was far from over.
After his caregiver was shot — and Rios-Soto was detained by police — Rios-Soto spent 34 days in Aventura Hospital’s psychiatric ward, Dietz said. “I insisted that APD perform a detailed evaluation, and move him from MacTown, where he would have had flashbacks” of the shooting, Dietz said.
Disability administrators found a home for him at the Carlton Palms Educational Center. The Lake County center had the virtue of being the only institution in the state capable of caring for people with disabilities with sometimes extreme behavioral problems. But the home also had a significant shortcoming: At least two residents died there under questionable circumstances, and the facility long was plagued by serious reports of resident abuse and neglect.
“The only place that could meet his needs was Carlton Palms,” Dietz said.
But a lawsuit filed last year by the advocacy group Disability Rights Florida said Rios-Soto was “subject to repeated use of chemical and mechanical restraints” at the institution, and was badly neglected “by staff that let him shave his own head.”
“It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that Arnaldo was able to shave off his hair, engage in self-abusive behaviors and have his clothes strewn around the property when Carlton Palms is receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars for care,” Dietz wrote in a Nov. 30, 2017, email to disability administrators.
When Carlton Palms was shut down by the state in October 2018, after a series of stories in the Miami Herald, Rios-Soto was moved to Beechdale, a group home in Orlando. APD leaders agreed to shell out about $514,000 per year to ensure both Rios-Soto and his neighbors were safe, which meant that, around the clock, three workers were close enough to intervene if his behavior jeopardized his safety, or that of others.
This year, APD reduced the funding for Rios-Soto to a maximum of $440,000 per year. The contract also diminished Rios-Soto’s care plan to three workers to supervise him during waking hours, two to watch him overnight, and one to monitor him during certain daytime training activities.
Rios-Soto needs intensive monitoring because he is prone to dangerous behavior, according to behavioral assessments. He has a history of running away from caregivers. His sleep is erratic and monitors have reported that he experiences night terrors, causing him to wake up and scream “Police! Police!”
Aside from challenging the size of the funding cut, Cook, executive director for Attain, the Florida not-for-profit that runs the Beechdale Home, said he could not discuss Rios-Soto’s case without the family’s consent.
Melanie Mowry Etters, communications director for APD, issued the following statement:
“The Agency for Persons with Disabilities has offered this family several group home alternatives. The current provider … agreed to a funding amount in a contract, and is now saying he will not deliver services to this individual. It is unfortunate that Attain chooses to evict this resident when the state is more than adequately compensating the company for the services it is providing. We will continue to work with this family to locate a caring facility that can meet this individual’s needs.”
Cook did sign a contract with APD in June renewing Attain’s commitment to care for Rios-Soto at the reduced rate, according to court filings in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Disability Rights Florida, the advocacy group, against the disability agency.
But in a signed declaration filed as part of the lawsuit, Cook said he had not been told of the funding reduction and that he had been promised by state officials that staffing levels for Rios-Soto would remain the same.
“Without the adequate services, (Rios-Soto) would be in physical danger or he would be institutionalized in a Baker Act receiving facility,” Cook said in the declaration, referring to Florida’s civil commitment law. “APD did not discuss the reduction prior to making this decision, nor did they send a notice to (Rios-Soto).”
In September, Cook sent Rios-Soto’s mother, Gladys Soto, a letter notifying her that Attain would evict her son in 30 days because APD would not pay for enough workers to monitor him safely.
Earlier this month, records show, Cook told representatives of Rios-Soto’s family that Rios-Soto would be removed from the facility as a trespasser, and that Cook “would involve law enforcement” to clear Rios-Soto out, Glenda Sheppard, Rios-Soto’s case manager, wrote in an Oct. 11 email.
State officials proposed moving Rios-Soto to a group home in St. Petersburg or St. Augustine, but his mother declined the offer.
Gladys Soto, 63, said she is tired of moving over and over again to be close to her son. She estimates that since she and her family moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in 2000 she has moved eight to 10 times as Rios-Soto was transferred from one group home to another.
Soto said she would prefer that Rios-Soto live at home with her, and that she has asked the state to help with the transition. But she has yet to receive a contract or even an assurance from state disability administrators that they will provide Rios-Soto with the intensive level of care he needs.
“They haven’t said yes,” she said, “but they haven’t said no.”
Soto said her son’s behavior has improved immensely at Beechdale, where he has learned to trust the staff and his therapists. Now she is worried that her son’s behavior will regress if he’s forced into a new and unfamiliar environment.
“It’s taken so many years and so long for him to begin to trust people again,” Soto said, “and now they’re going to take him out of there, to put him God knows where, as if he were a rabbit or a dog in the street that they’re placing in a shelter.”
In order for Rios-Soto to live at home with his mother, he would need to be discharged with a transition plan that includes a review to ensure that the home is adequately staffed and equipped to handle his behavioral needs. He would also need to have doctors and behavioral professionals in place.
Dietz, who oversees the Disability Independence Group, an advocacy organization representing Rios-Soto and other persons with disabilities affected by APD’s funding cuts, said he is confident that the cost of placing Rios-Soto with his family at home would be a lot less than the $440,000 per year the state pays now to keep him in a group home.
Soto said she’s tired of seeing Arnaldo shuffled from one group home to another. She wants him to have his own home, with his own things, where he can be at peace without fear of being evicted, she said.
Early last week, Soto said, she received an eviction summons from the court, ordering her to remove Rios-Soto from the Beechdale home because he is trespassing — an allegation that rankles her because, she said, APD is still paying Attain to care for her son.
Soto said she feels like she and her son are caught in the middle of a bureaucratic standoff.
“This whole fight has been about money,” she said. “Nobody cares about the harm this is doing to him or the harm it’s doing to me.”
© 2019 Miami Herald
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