CASTRO VALLEY -- According to the California Department of Social Services website, Valley Springs Manor is open for business and fully licensed.

That may come as a surprise to the families of 19 residents who were abandoned at the facility in October because state regulators closed it for providing substandard care. The fact that state records don't reflect the well-publicized incident points to a bigger problem: Californians looking for a safe option for a loved one can get scant information about such facilities from the state agency that regulates them.

The agency's website lists little more than addresses and licensing status for California residential care homes. And when this news organization asked the state for complete information on inspections, violations, citations and fines on such facilities, it was told that fulfilling such a request would take four years and would require a payment of almost $30,000.

Instead, the Department of Social Services provided information on the number and amount of fines levied against each facility in the state in 2012 and 2013. The news organization is making that information available in an exclusive, searchable database at www.insidebayarea.com/senior-care, providing useful if incomplete guidance to family members who so far have found little help from the state.


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Anita Phillips is one of those. When she placed her ex-husband, Stan, at Valley Springs, she had no idea that the home had a history of violations, or that its administrators were being investigated by the state.

"Nobody said, 'This place is in trouble,'" before the home closed, she said. "But it was falling apart."

Other states make this type of information available online; California even does so with nursing homes, where residents are under constant medical supervision, but not with care homes, where residents have more freedom and less medical oversight. There are as many as 300,000 people in nursing homes in California and more than 174,000 people in care homes.

The state's website on residential care homes provides only a facility's address, contact information and licensing status. In the case of Valley Springs Manor, that information is months out of date; it is unknown how many other homes listed have suspended or revoked licenses.

Stan Phillips is photographed at the Hayward Hills Healthcare Center in Hayward. Phillips was a resident of Valley Springs Manor assisted living facility,
Stan Phillips is photographed at the Hayward Hills Healthcare Center in Hayward. Phillips was a resident of Valley Springs Manor assisted living facility, but relocated when workers abandoned it. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) ( ARIC CRABB )

Patricia McGinnis, spokeswoman for the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said that under the current system, family members looking for care for a loved one have to hop from office to office to view facility records, prolonging the process of finding the right place. She said the department has done little to modernize its record-keeping, calling their computer system "a mess."

"The history of bureaucratic red tape and excuses is no longer viable," McGinnis said. "What are we going to do and how are we going to do it?"

Concerned about the care her mother, 77-year-old Janet Wright, was receiving at a Walnut Creek care home, Carol Sani spent several months last year searching for a new home for Wright, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Finding little help from the state, Sani turned to privately run "review" websites but didn't get any useful information there, either.

"I was losing hope," she said.

The experience felt more like shopping for real estate than for a care home for a loved one, Sani said. Many sites were filled with reviews and testimonials, but none had basic facility history, formal inspection reports or information about violations and penalties.

To receive detailed information, families must call the Department of Social Services and ask staffers to mail information to them, read files over the phone or put aside reports on facility information so they can personally look at records, department spokesman Michael Weston said.

Janet Elaine Wright, 77, talks to her daughter Carol Sani, of Oakland, during a visit to Sani’s mother’s new residence at Lakeside Park
Janet Elaine Wright, 77, talks to her daughter Carol Sani, of Oakland, during a visit to Sani's mother's new residence at Lakeside Park Specialized Elder Care in Oakland. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area New Group) (RAY CHAVEZ)

There are nine regional offices and an additional eight satellite offices across the state -- but each office offers information only on homes within its area. There is no central database to compare facilities -- a basic expectation in the era of online shopping.

Other states are far ahead of California. Florida, for example, makes complete inspection reports dating back to 2008 available online. The state spends $298,000 a year maintaining and adding information to its website, said Beth Eastman, spokeswoman for Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration.

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services website includes a searchable database of residential care centers that includes links to all letters, fines and other notices issued to them.

California's database of skilled nursing facilities, overseen by the Department of Public Health, includes inspectors' findings, complaints filed by the public and the results of investigations.

Weston said the Department of Social Services can't afford to compile all its residential care center information into a similar database, though when asked how much a modern database and web portal would cost, he said officials have not discussed it. A spokesman for the Department of Public Health said that creating the database of skilled nursing facilities and making it available to the public cost about $1.3 million.

Department of Social Services Director Will Lightbourne referred all inquiries to Weston. But at a legislative hearing Tuesday on his department's role in licensing and inspecting assisted-living homes for seniors, Lightbourne said options are being explored for making information available to the public online. Options would include a database that would require a "modest" cost and be similar to the one created by this newspaper by listing facility names and inspection dates; or an advanced online database that he said could take three to four years to create and cost in the tens of millions of dollars.

Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, who is among a group of lawmakers working on a package of bills to force changes in elder care center oversight, said she did not believe creating a database would be expensive. She said she and her staff are working with the department to figure out a price point, though a funding source is unclear.

"There are always going to be budget constraints no matter what we talk about," Eggman said. "This is a database that will help our most vulnerable seniors. I don't think this will be a problem to create."

Eggman authored Assembly Bill 1571 to require the department to establish an online system that includes license, ownership and complaint information on every residential care facility for the elderly in the next five years.

"You shouldn't have to go to Yelp to find the facility that is going to be a home for your loved one," state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro said.

Weston said department staffers are working to improve policies and communication to ensure what happened in Castro Valley will not happen again. But until the state does more to distill and distribute information, most consumers will be left to their own devices to get information.

Anita Phillips said she loves her ex-husband's new home in Hayward, recommended to her by Kaiser Permanente hospital workers. Phillips said she is especially grateful that administrators are always on site and that Stan Phillips' needs are addressed quickly.

"His light goes on, and they are right there," she said. "It is a total 180 from Valley Springs."

Sani said her mother has already shown signs of improvement in her new memory care center in Oakland and that she sees more of her mother's old self every day.

"Your loved one is the person who has to go through the bumps in the road," she said. "You have to have confidence in every person who is involved in caring for your parents."

Follow Katie Nelson at Twitter.com/katienelson210. Follow Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/bayareadata.