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Complaints, inspections spur investigation into Petersburg assisted living facility

The exterior of Fillmore Place in Petersburg is shown during the spring.
VPM News obtained copies of complaints filed against Fillmore Place, as well as copies of state inspection reports from 2017 through 2021. Those reports show the Petersburg assisted living facility was cited for state code violations over bed bugs, hygiene concerns and other issues. (Photos: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

According to a state agency, there are only 12 assisted living facilities in Virginia that are not fully licensed. Fillmore Place in Petersburg is among that small fraction of hundreds of facilities operating on a six-month provisional license, which is set to expire on Saturday. 

If not renewed, the future of the facility — and the residents who live there — is in question. According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, “at the conclusion of the provisional licensure period, the facility or agency must be in substantial compliance with licensing standards or be denied a license to continue operation.”

Kevin Harris, a former Fillmore Place employee who worked as a housekeeper at the facility for a couple of weeks earlier this year, showed VPM News copies of photos of Fillmore Place he said he captured on his phone while working there.

“I can't think of the room number, but you can see how caked up the bedbugs are up in this mattress,” Harris said.

“Most of the time, I go in a room, I see a dead rat, which is just laying there … and I see beds that are wet. And then I see a resident come and lay right back in it,” Harris said.

Fillmore Place Administrator Brenda Seal told VPM News that she thinks the photos were staged. 

“We don’t have an infestation of bedbugs,” Seal said. “We might find one or two bedbugs, but those are very rare these days.”

She placed the blame on residents for bringing bedbugs into the facility, as well as two other facilities that Seal said closed down during the pandemic. Seal said Fillmore Place took in residents displaced from those shuttered facilities.

Fillmore Place complaints, inspections

VPM News obtained copies of complaints filed against Fillmore Place, as well as copies of state inspection reports from 2017 through 2021. Those reports show repeated state code violations for bed bugs, hygiene concerns and other issues.

While DSS deemed some complaints about Fillmore Place unfounded, many — especially more recent complaints — were found to be valid upon inspection from the state.

An inspection report from December outlined more than 20 separate code violations that include but are not limited to: soiled and damaged sheets; an odor of urine; lamps without lightbulbs; bathrooms without supplies like toilet paper and soap; bedbugs in beds and on the wall; gnats flying throughout the facility; and poor documentation of resident services.

“I was absolutely horrified,” said Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld, who studies long-term care administration at Maryland’s Towson University. She reviewed the records obtained by VPM News, as well as other recent news reports about the facility.

“If nothing has been addressed, I would describe [the conditions] as horrific,” McSweeney-Feld said. “And I would also describe them as conditions that are really abusive to any older adults or people with disabilities that are forced to live in those types of conditions.”

Seal, the Fillmore Place administrator, told VPM News that they have since taken steps to address the state code violations, including hiring a cleaning crew and having pest control come more frequently. 

“We're still trying to hire more people,” Seal said. “We have two construction groups that are in here, redoing rooms, air conditioners, heating systems, redoing floors, making it prettier, nicer for [residents].”

But violations weren’t limited to hygiene and record-keeping. A fall 2021 inspection stated that Fillmore Place failed to ensure residents received baths at least twice a week; Seal said she can’t force residents who don’t want to bathe, to bathe. Another fall violation cited Fillmore for not indicating interventions or alternative bathing options in a resident’s individualized service plan. 

Further, the December 2021 inspection report noted that Fillmore Place failed to provide residents with services they needed. For example, the facility’s descriptions of need indicated that some residents were able to dress and bathe independently, contradicting state assessments. 

DSS also cited Fillmore in fall 2021 for failing to contact the state licensing office after a resident went missing for more than 24 hours, though police were notified. Two days after they disappeared, police informed the facility that the resident had been arrested and was in jail. 

Administrator Seal said for most residents — those without a power of attorney making decisions for them — “we have an open campus here, one of the rarities in the area, and they are allowed to come and go as they choose.” Seal said she does ask residents where they’re going and how long they’ll be gone, “and if they're not back in time, then we contact the police department to go looking for them. We contact the hospitals, we go make our rounds, check and see if they're OK.”

Residents at Fillmore Place

Debra Dobbs, an associate professor with the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies, also reviewed the state inspection records. She said that while the conditions at Fillmore were unacceptable, solutions aren’t so straightforward.

“It is tricky, because on one hand, if you close a place like this, where are those people going to go?” Dobbs said. 

She points out that most of Fillmore’s residents have disabilities or mental illnesses and said the facility likely receives much less funding than other facilities that predominantly rely on private pay.  

“People who are [in Fillmore Place] with behavioral health problems may not also have family or the family is not really helping pay for the cost of care,” Dobbs said.

Seal said that only a handful of Fillmore’s 79 residents have family members who visit. And the majority are incontinent, which contributes to the difficulty in keeping the facility clean. 

Additionally, Seal said she’s still having a hard time getting up to full staff after she lost half of her direct-care staff during the pandemic. Seal said the facility has eight nursing aides. At any given time, residents outnumber aides 26-to-1. 

Seal said while Fillmore is only able to pay the state minimum wage of $11 an hour to employees, staff members are eligible for overtime, and she tries to make up for that with flexible hours. 

“We have part-time people, we have people that do job sharing,” Seal said. 

Seal said funding is also an ongoing challenge: The facility receives $1,609 from the state per month for residents who rely on Supplemental Security Income. That’s much lower than the median assisted living fees for the Richmond area. 

“We're constantly battling with the government to provide money for us,” Seal said. “But we don't discharge residents because they cannot meet the financial obligations. Most of the facilities that I know of, they discharge them for lack of money, but our owners don’t do that.”

Seal said Fillmore’s owners — husband and wife Saifullah and Shehla Niazi — spend several thousand dollars a year buying Christmas presents and clothing for residents. Channel8 first reported that Saifullah Niazi is a former psychiatrist whose license was suspended by the Virginia board of medicine for malpractice several years ago, and was the second time his license was suspended.

The Virginia Department of Social Services would not grant an interview with VPM News about Fillmore Place because they are actively investigating complaints there. Similarly, DSS also would not share copies of complaints and violations from early 2022 with VPM News because of the investigation. 

Seal said she was told the facility’s provisional license will remain in place until the investigation is complete — potentially leaving Fillmore Place in limbo.

Kevin Harris isn’t the only former employee concerned about the living conditions — and safety — of Fillmore Place residents.

Dakota Winters was a maintenance worker at Fillmore Place briefly earlier this year. He said one resident would call him “motorcycle man” because Winters rode his motorcycle to work. When the resident asked to try on his helmet, Winters was hesitant because of the bedbugs. But eventually, Winters gifted him one of his old helmets.

“He walked around all day wearing that helmet. And he's always talking about how well he takes care of it,” Winters said. 

Winters hope conditions improve for this resident and others like him.

“It’s a rough place. I really, really feel bad for the people that are in there,” Winters said.  “I don't feel like they should be in these conditions.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.