A Middletown woman who was hired to provide around-the-clock care for an elderly Vernon man with dementia has been accused of putting the man's safety in jeopardy, and the case is raising questions about who is qualified to provide in-home care.
Shortly after midnight on Jan. 3, 2018, desperate calls for help came from a home on Prospect Street in Vernon. Police said an elderly man with dementia was in danger at the hands of the woman hired to care for him.
The 81-year-old man was alone with this live-in home companion, 29-year-old Sheri Highsmith, at the time.
"I could hear from upstairs breaking and smashing," said Michelle Barker, who lives in another unit of the multi-family home where things were spiraling out of control.
"That whole time I'm thinking 'is he OK? Did she hurt him?' He can't take care of himself and that whole time not knowing if he was OK or what happened,” added Barker.
Property owner Guy Brennan said he ran next door to check on his tenant when a bottle of hot sauce shattered two windows, narrowly missing his face before hitting a car in the driveway.
"I didn't have a clue why she was doing it; getting so upset like that like she was. I've never seen anyone react that violently," said Brennan. Brennan said he entered the apartment and found damage, including a broken TV, broken microwave and broken chairs.
According to an arrest warrant for Highsmith, Vernon police officers arrived and broke through the locked apartment door when they saw “an orange glow flickering” in the kitchen. Officers said Highsmith was burning papers on top of the stove.
The warrant said that Highsmith threatened to kill first responders and herself, that she spit at and kicked at officers and threw a bucket of urine at them. Police said they handcuffed her but then still had to restrain her arms and legs. The elderly man in her care was not hurt during the violent confrontation, according to responding officers.
"She could have killed us," said Barker. "She wanted to light the house on fire."
Highsmith was transported to Rockville General Hospital and admitted to the psychiatric unit, but police said that she snuck out hours later without being discharged. After a warrant was issued for her arrest, Highsmith was taken into police custody on Jan. 16.
At an appearance at Rockville Superior Court in Vernon, Highsmith's attorney said her client has “profound” and “significant” mental illness, and needs therapy and medication. Attorney Cynthia Barlow told the judge that Highsmith had been hospitalized multiple times over the last 14 years due to mental illness.
Highsmith is facing felony charges of reckless burning and criminal mischief as well as misdemeanor charges of interfering with an officer/resisting arrest, threatening, reckless endangerment and breach of peace. As of a court appearance on Feb. 20, Highsmith had yet to enter any plea. The judge allowed her to be released from police custody as part of a jail diversion program. The court ordered her to refrain from taking part in any kind of caregiving work.
Highsmith's former employer, Rocky Hill-based Premium Home Aids and Companions Services, told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters that Highsmith "experienced a breakdown" on the job on Jan. 3. The company said immediate action was taken and that Highsmith is no longer with the agency.
Connecticut's Department of Consumer Protection (DCP), which oversees registration for homemaker-companion agencies but not for specific employees, has opened an investigation into the practices surrounding the company's hiring of Highsmith.
"There's always a chance that somebody who's not quite right is going to get hired," said Lora Rae Anderson, director of communications for DCP.
State law requires that homemaker-companion agencies conduct and keep comprehensive state and national criminal history records on all employees. The results of those background checks are required to be made available to DCP.
Premium Home Aids and Companions Services provided background check documents showing what the company found to be Highsmith's “good standing” at the time of hire. See them at the bottom of the article.
The company acknowledges it is not required to screen for mental health issues and said there was no indication of Highsmith's history before she was hired. The agency told the Troubleshooters that the "hiring process is now under review.”
Medicare pays for the in-home care for the elderly man Highsmith was caring for, according to his Power of Attorney. That means that Highsmith's paycheck was ultimately coming from taxpayer dollars.
DCP said there are currently no plans to introduce any revisions to state law pertaining to homemaker-companion screening.
"At this point, right now, we don't have any changes that are coming up this legislative session," Anderson said.
But those people who are close with the elderly man at the center of the January incident believe the screening process for homemaker-companion employees needs to be stricter.
"They had no business hiring her at all," said Brennan. "This can happen. It did happen and I hope and pray that it doesn't happen to any other person."
"He's a person," said Barker. "He deserves to be treated like everybody else and not just like some throwaway."
DCP urges consumers to have a signed contract in place before someone starts working in your home. Read the contract thoroughly, and ask as many questions as needed, especially regarding additional fees, DCP advises. Agencies do need to conduct background checks on employees and consumers should ask to review the results of those screenings.
"There's always a risk for a family and always a risk for a consumer when somebody is going to be in your house, which is why we encourage everybody to take the steps that they need ahead of time and to plan for it now," said Anderson.