CASTRO VALLEY -- Had they known about the troubling history of Valley Springs Manor, several residents who endured its traumatic closure last week said they would not have moved into the assisted living home.

Most couldn't have known. With many ostensibly public elder care records obscured behind locked government doors, frail residents who strain to walk had little chance of uncovering the Castro Valley business owners' epic trail of health violations, fines, overdue bills and lawsuits.

"Everything seemed like roses," said Vernetta Nash, 84, of her first night in the home. "They gave us a nice little dinner, we had a little talk and we went to bed."

No one told Vernetta and Eddie Nash, when they arrived the last week of August, that the state Department of Social Services was approaching its fourth month of a meticulously recorded legal battle to revoke the residential care home's license and ban its owners from ever setting foot in such a business again.

By the time the Nashes figured that out, their life was spiraling into a humiliating nightmare.

"Things just started, one at a time, falling apart," she said. "There was feces on the wall and on the sink, rat droppings, roaches. ... It's just, it wasn't right. It just wasn't right."

The mass evacuation of the Nashes and a dozen other residents after the home's managers and all but two unpaid workers abandoned the facility on Oct. 24 has exposed fissures in the state's elder care oversight and transparency. Among the biggest questions: How can older, disabled or mentally ill residents and their families find out which homes to avoid?

Hundreds of state workers from the Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Division, formed in 1985, are tasked with monitoring about 7,500 assisted living homes across California. But their evaluations often remain hidden despite rules that clearly state the findings must be publicized.

A 1998 state law, sponsored by a Los Angeles Democrat who turned 80 that year, noted that "the choice of a residential care facility for the elderly often occurs during a time of great stress" and that elders and their families often must find a facility within the span of a few days after a sudden health setback.

It ordered every assisted living home to make licensing reports viewable in a conspicuous place. The law also said each home's public file "shall be available immediately upon the request of any consumer" who visits the state's regional offices where local documents are held.

Yet in the third-floor state office on Oakland's Clay Street where the Castro Valley home's evaluations are kept -- a place reached by crossing through a security checkpoint and dialing a red phone outside a locked glass door -- a state worker denied a reporter immediate access to the case file last week, citing confidential references she said could take days to cross out. She eventually provided a copy of the Oct. 21 document ordering the home's closure.

The Nashes never had the time or inclination to get that far. Neither did Virginia Evans, whose family members trusted care home owner Hilda Manuel to watch over the disabled 69-year-old because the owner seemed pleasant.

"I met Hilda. She was nice, very businesslike," said Gregory Brooks, a nephew of Evans. Evans was unable to be interviewed and might not even remember what happened last week because of her severe short-term memory loss, Brooks said.

Also in the dark was retired construction supervisor Stan Phillips, 81, despite help from an attentive ex-wife who once worked in a skilled nursing facility.

"I'm a nurse, and I should have been aware what was going on around me, but you learn to trust people," Anita Phillips said.

Now, after days in the hospital, Stan Phillips and most of the other residents have found new and nicer places to live, but Anita Phillips said the stress has weakened a man who already suffered from heart problems.

"It's so hard to believe this could happen in the year 2013," she said. "We expected the owner to step up to the plate."

Like many of their generation, Phillips and the Nashes spent a lifetime working hard and hoped to spend their last years in modest, restful comfort. But the realities of aging also set in.

A social worker recommended that Vernetta Nash, a retired schoolteacher, and her husband, a former maintenance man, move from their Hayward apartment to a place where professional caretakers could help care for their basic needs.

Those caretakers and administrators began walking off the doomed business not long after they arrived, leaving the home "badly, badly understaffed," Vernetta Nash said.

The worst was getting stuck in a bathroom, she said.

"So I started yelling for help, and finally someone heard me," she said. "A male worker came and took me off the commode. That was so embarrassing, but that's what happened."

They also didn't know that California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform had trumpeted its "grievous warnings" beginning in February about the Manuel family's staffing and management of another beleaguered facility, Oakland's Eden Manor, that was shipping out residents -- some to Valley Springs Manor -- as a foreclosure forced the business to close.

Hilda Manuel has declined to be interviewed through her lawyer, Orrin Grover, who said the owner disputes, and is deeply upset by, allegations she did not properly care for residents at the homes. She has spent more than 25 years in the elder care business, including running convalescent homes that closed many years ago because of financial and legal problems.

Unsatisfied with the state's response to their concerns about Eden Manor, the advocacy group wrote an April letter to the state "demanding that you revoke the owner's license and never allow her to operate another facility" and asked if she had any others. The letter also claimed advocates met resistance trying to seek public files at the Oakland office, with one worker hovering over an advocate who was trying to peruse a document.

"It's a mindset," said Pat McGinnis, the reform group's executive director, in an interview Friday. "It doesn't matter if you have 50 more staff people there. You have to have a change in attitude."

Department of Social Services spokesman Michael Weston said his agency did launch, in May, the intensive proceedings required before the state can shut down the Castro Valley home and another owned by the Manuels in Modesto. Homes accused of breaking health and safety rules are allowed a lengthy appeals process to dispute the state allegations, but state workers became so concerned this fall that they ordered Valley Springs Manor's emergency closure with 72 hours notice. Their inability to ensure all the residents got out safely after revoking the license is now under internal review, Weston said.

Even neighbors of Valley Springs Manor knew to caution anyone thinking of moving there, though they were rarely consulted, despite repeatedly reporting mentally ill residents wandering off at all hours.

"They took in patients who required more care than the staff could deal with," said Lynn Railsback, who has lived across the street for 15 years. "We thought: If this is what's going on outside, then what is going on inside?"

McGinnis said something needs to be done to make sure it is easier for vulnerable residents and their loved ones to find that out.

One problem is the state offers "absolutely no information available online for consumers to use," as some other states do, McGinnis said.

"They seem to be much more of a provider protection agency than a consumer protection agency," she said. "If they're not going to be a consumer protection agency, why do we need Community Care Licensing?"

Staff writer Chris De Benedetti contributed to this report. Contact Matt O'Brien at 510-208-6429.