Laurie Powell of Hickory spent two years crying after her adult son revealed he had been sexually abused by the manager of his Conover group home for adults with mental disabilities.
Her son, Burt, 37, described sexual abuse that happened repeatedly over a year’s time. He named other residents who fell victim to the man. During a police investigation, Powell learned that some group home workers knew about the abuse but did not report it because their jobs were threatened.
Now Powell is fighting for changes in state law that would ensure workers in these facilities report abuse if they witness it.
“At some point, I guess you have to decide that you are either going to continue to be a victim of a system or you’re going to try to make things better,” she said.
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Powell; her son, Burt; and husband, Tom, spent the week in Raleigh petitioning lawmakers to pass “Burt’s law” – Senate Bill 445 and House Bill 355. The bills would increase the penalty to the highest misdemeanor – punishable by up to 120 days in jail – for those who witness but do not report client abuse in homes for the mentally ill, the elderly and similar institutions.
The bills would require workers to report abuse to the county department of social services and the local district attorney within 24 hours, but also provide them with protection from job threats or harassment for making the report.
“Right now, you report to the group home, but they have an interest in smashing it down and covering it up,” said Steven Walker, general counsel and policy director for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who supports the bills. “Under this law, there would be back-ups to make sure stuff like this doesn’t happen again.”
Powell is confident the law will pass with the bipartisan support it has gained in the week since it was introduced. It is simply “the right thing to do,” she said.
Still, getting this far has been an uphill battle for Powell. She says the company that owns the group home in Conover has tried to stop her, threatening a lawsuit.
“I was told, ‘You’re just a mom. Nobody is going to listen to you.’ That’s like moving a rock uphill,” Powell said. “But if anyone can move that rock uphill, a mama can.”
Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, which provides legal services for the disabled, said Burt’s law would be a good step in changing the culture in these facilities. She said workers that call Disability Rights with anonymous tips are often afraid to report abuse.
“This is not one mom who has developed a passion,” Smith said. “This is a systemic concern, and it’s critically important that we make these community-based residences safe for people.”
The Powells’ story
Burt told his mother about the abuse in 2012, about five years after it occurred and he had moved back home. Powell said the offender had not only abused Burt but forced him and a number of residents to sexually interact while he watched. Then to ensure silence, he made threats to harm their families.
The offender was in his late 60s and had worked with handicapped people his whole career, Powell said.
“This is North Carolina’s Sandusky,” Powell said, referring to the Pennsylvania State University football coach convicted as a serial child molester.
She wanted to go to court, but just days before Burt was scheduled to tell his story before an advocacy board and police, the man died from a heart attack.
The police investigation died with him. The Powells shifted to a legislative approach to protect others in the future.
“This law will pass because I will work until the day I die to get something done,” Powell said.
An uncertain future
After the abuse, Burt suffered from nightmares, woke up screaming and hid behind his dresser yelling “Get off of me.”
“It felt like a part of us died, thinking about somebody taking my child’s innocence,” she said. “What was taken away we will never get back.”
Even now, Burt cannot be separated from his parents for even one night because it is too stressful for him. The Powells are in their 60s and worry about the day they will no longer be around for their son.
The goal is for Burt to live in a supervised apartment, and he works with an in-home skill builder learning to cook and do laundry.
“I really thought we were working toward making Burt independent to where he knew he could survive OK, that people would care and love him,” Powell said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with him.”