The mixed legacy of the Tacony dungeon case

Posted: January 22, 2014

IN OCTOBER 2011, Philadelphia police rescued four mentally disabled people from a filthy Tacony basement, where Linda Ann Weston and four codefendants allegedly held them captive in a scheme to steal their Social Security benefits.

In the wake of the Tacony dungeon case, outraged congressional leaders called for swift changes to how the Social Security Administration screens and monitors people who receive benefits on behalf of the elderly and disabled.

But more than two years later, advocates for senior citizens and those with disabilities say that Social Security has taken minimal steps to root out fraud and abuse within the "Representative Payee Program."

"There's very little, if any, oversight and monitoring and we've seen the consequences of that," said Karen Buck, executive director of the Senior Law Center in Philadelphia.

A government report last year concluded much the same thing.

"In summary, we found that SSA struggles to effectively administer its Representative Payee Program, despite steps the agency has taken to address its challenges in identifying, selecting and monitoring representative payees," stated Daniel Bertoni, of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, during a June 5, 2013, congressional hearing.

Terri Lewis, a regional Social Security spokeswoman, said that the agency takes its responsibility to select and monitor payees seriously. But, with millions of beneficiaries in need of payees, the task can be daunting.

"The beneficiaries who need a representative payee are the most vulnerable individuals we serve, often isolated from their families, and many have intellectual disabilities, making it even more challenging," Lewis wrote in a recent email to the Daily News. "With limited resources and decreased staff, the agency does the best job it can under very difficult circumstances."

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., was among the first lawmakers to implore Social Security administrators to close "completely unacceptable" loopholes in the representative payee system.

But the reforms so far are a mixed bag:

* Social Security employees do not have access to the FBI's database to check if a payee applicant has a criminal record. Casey introduced a bill that would enable such access, but the legislation has languished.

* Social Security relies heavily on yearly accounting reports, submitted by the payees themselves, to make sure the money is spent properly. Officials say they scrutinize reports that look fishy.

* In June 2012, Social Security launched a pilot program in the Philadelphia region that bars payee applicants who have committed one of 12 crimes: human trafficking, false imprisonment, kidnapping, rape/sexual assault, first-degree homicide, robbery, fraud to obtain governmental assistance, fraud by scheme, theft of government funds/property, abuse/neglect, forgery and identity theft. Previously, applicants were not automatically disqualified for those crimes. Social Security has deemed the pilot a success, weeding out 223 of 26,395 payee applicants as of May.

* In July, Social Security expanded the pilot program - again, only in the Philadelphia region - to allow employees to search a "private, third-party database" to delve into an applicant's background. But that database, LexisNexis Accurint, includes information culled from public records that are sometimes incomplete and unreliable.

* The Social Security Administration has put resources into conducting spot checks at mental institutions, nursing homes and boarding homes - places that serve as "organizational payees" for large numbers of people. But the agency lacks resources to investigate homes of individual payees who care for only one or two people.

"This is what terrifies me," said Curt Decker, executive director of The National Disability Rights Network. "Nobody is checking up on the person.

"It's just luck if someone notices something or reports it," Decker added, "If someone is chained in the basement, whoever sees her?"

In fact, Linda Weston's captives were found by accident. Her landlord heard a dog yapping in the basement of the Tacony apartment and went to investigate. He unraveled the chains that led to an abandoned boiler room in the sub-basement. Under a blanket, he spied the hollow faces of a man and woman staring back at him. He called police.

Twitter: @wendyruderman

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