|Pam Dahl is the mother of Derrick Dahl, a 36-year-old man with developmental disabilities who lives in a group home in Medford. Beth Nakamura/Staff|
The mother of a man with developmental disabilities, whose story of advocacy was recently published in The Oregonian/OregonLive, is now questioning if she’s facing retribution for challenging the care her son receives.
A visit with her son Thursday was cut short, Pam Dahl said, when a worker complained she badmouthed the company that runs the southern Oregon group home where he lives.
Then, on Monday, a Jackson County employee pushed to find a public guardian for Derrick Dahl, according to an email reviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Someone other than Pam Dahl should serve as a guardian, the government employee wrote in the email, because of the mother’s inconsistent contact with her son and the “disruptive nature” of her visits.
The story of Pam Dahl and her son was published a month ago as an example of the difficulties facing parents with developmentally disabled adult children and flaws in Oregon’s system that cares for them. Derrick Dahl’s caregiving team and his doctors came under scrutiny after Pam Dahl fought for specialized medical advice after learning about her son’s health issues.
Pam Dahl said she wasn’t disruptive in her visit last week but instead questioned if her son would be better-served at a different group home operated by the same company. Derrick Dahl, 36, has required medical attention for two recent falls, she said, leaving him with a concussion and a split lip.
Just days later, Pam Dahl discovered a county worker pushing to officially hand decision-making power to someone else, a move that could limit her input.
The government employee didn’t contact Pam Dahl before making the recommendation to identify a guardian, the mother said.
“I don’t think that I should be cut out of his life, and that’s what it makes me feel like,” said Pam Dahl, 55. She chose not to become her son’s guardian when he became an adult but remained involved in his life, visiting from her home several hours away.
Alternative Services-Oregon, the group home operator, denies any retribution toward Pam Dahl. Jackson County officials didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Oregon’s Office of Developmental Disabilities Services did not immediately respond to questions about Pam Dahl’s allegations or whether the state would review the matter.
“Anyone with a concern about services can file a complaint,” an agency spokeswoman said, adding that the mother could still seek guardianship to determine where her son lives.
The state of Oregon operates a public guardianship program only as last resort. Instead of tapping a family member or professional guardian to serve in that role, a guardian from the Oregon Public Guardian and Conservator Program would make decisions for an individual.
“Guardianship is one of the most severe restrictions on a person’s right to self-determination and should never be considered lightly,” according to the agency’s website.
Chris Rosin, appointed the Oregon public guardian and conservator, in February said his office served as guardian for just 55 adults statewide, 11 of whom have intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Pam and Derrick Dahl were featured in a front-page investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive in May examining Oregon’s flawed system for people with developmental disabilities who cannot make medical decisions and who lack legal guardians.
In such cases, medical decisions are made by an appointed health care representative with approval by a team of caregivers, service coordinators or family members.
In 2017, doctors at Providence Medical Group evaluated Derrick Dahl and identified a mass that was “concerning” for a sarcoma, a cancerous tumor, records show. But he wasn’t immediately seen by a cancer specialist.
Pam Dahl pushed for Derrick’s care team to obtain an opinion from a specialist in 2018, leading to surgery at OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute and the revelation that the tumor apparently was not cancerous.
Pam Dahl’s decision to publicly share her son’s cancer scare exposed simmering tension with Alternative Services, the group home operator, which began years ago, according to a former employee.
The company’s executive director, Pat Allen-Sleeman, initially responded to newsroom inquiries about Derrick Dahl’s medical care from 2017 and 2018 by saying “there is really no story here to tell, except misinformation, a dramatic self-serving version and an inaccurate and harmful story.”
Pam Dahl said interactions with Alternative Services have gone downhill since the story’s publication. A visit Thursday with her son ended when a company employee asked her to leave, she said.
Pam Dahl said she questioned caregivers at the group home about her son’s injuries and said she would like him to move to a different group home, also operated by Alternative Services, where he lived until early 2018.
One of the caregivers called a supervisor and then handed over the phone.
“She said, ‘You’re going to have to leave,’” Pam Dahl said of her conversation with the supervisor. “‘We can’t have you badmouthing the company to other employees.’”
Pam Dahl said she questioned how she could be badmouthing the company when she was advocating for him to move to a different home operated by Alternative Services.
“There was no reason to ask me to leave,” Pam Dahl said. “I was stunned.”
Allen-Sleeman, the company’s executive director, said Pam Dahl was told “she should not be speaking badly about ASI to our staff, and that if she couldn’t calm down, she would be asked to leave.”
Pam Dahl asked the employees if she was being disruptive, and, when told she was, flipped the phone back to them and left, Allen-Sleeman said.
On Monday, Derrick Dahl’s services coordinator at Jackson County proposed the need to find Derrick Dahl a public guardian, according to an email Pam Dahl shared with The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Melissa Walker wrote that she received a few calls and emails about Thursday’s incident. It was her “understanding” that Pam Dahl wanted her son to move to a different group home, Walker wrote, but Pam Dahl “cannot dictate” where her son lives because she is not his guardian.
“Because of the disruptive nature of Pam’s visits and the inconsistency of her contact with Derrick, I don’t feel she would be the best guardian for him, hence my proposal of a public guardian,” Walker wrote.
Pam Dahl acknowledges that she hasn’t been consistent in her visits but disputes that she was disruptive. Pam Dahl said she didn’t speak with Walker before Walker proposed a guardian.
Neither Walker nor her boss, Rick Hammel, responded to requests for comment Tuesday.
Last week’s incident was only the latest hint of friction between Pam Dahl and Alternative Services, according to a former employee at the company.
Jamie Gregory said she was the manager at the group home where Derrick Dahl lived until April 2018. Gregory told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she remembered hearing disparaging comments about Pam Dahl and being instructed to withhold information from the mother after she learned about her son’s tumor that spring.
Around the same time Alternative Services moved Derrick Dahl to a different group home operated by the company, a move Gregory said she vocally opposed. Gregory said she was fired shortly after, which she attributes in part to speaking up for Derrick Dahl.
“If Derrick could voice his own opinion, he would not agree with the move either,” Gregory told the newsroom.
Allen-Sleeman said the program manager who allegedly made disparaging comments is on vacation and unable to respond. Allen-Sleeman said she could not comment on a former employee’s “performance issues” but said Gregory’s statements are “very questionable.”
“A disgruntled ex-employee is not a credible reporter in my estimation,” she said. “But of course that makes a better story than the actuality of what really occurred.”
It’s not clear who may make decisions for Derrick Dahl going forward.
Walker’s recommendation Monday was emailed to a Jackson County employee, Allen-Sleeman, three other Alternative Services staff members and one former company employee, who serves as Derrick Dahl’s unpaid health care representative.
Allen-Sleeman said every member of Derrick Dahl’s care team agreed he should have a public guardian.
Pam Dahl hasn’t responded to the email.
Pam Dahl said she would be interested in becoming her son’s guardian if he moved to Eugene, Corvallis or Salem. Those cities are closer to her home on the Oregon coast and would allow her to be more involved, she said.
Pam Dahl said she thinks she needs a lawyer but isn’t sure who to contact for help.
“I feel like I’m on one side against all of them,” she said, “and I need someone to represent me.”
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Mother questions retaliation after advocating for son with developmental disabilities