Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Strangers gather at Washington Crossing National Cemetery to honor vets with no families

WWII Veteran Bob Oettel salutes unattended veterans
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2016
Seaman 1st Class Raymond Evans was buried Monday.
Seaman Frederick Burkeholder was laid to rest Tuesday.
Neither Navy veteran had anyone at his graveside.
But Thursday afternoon, two dozen strangers mourned their deaths at Washington Crossing National Cemetery.
They included an officer decked out in his dress whites, a 93-year-old World War II veteran and a couple of teens. There were a dozen men wearing baseball caps announcing what military branches or wars they served in and more men in black leather vests covered in patches that bore sentiments like "You're Not Forgotten" and "Bring 'Em Home or Send Us Back."
None of them knew anything about the people they came to honor. Not until the service started did mourners learn the names of Evans and Burkeholder, their military ranks and branches. That was the only information they got. But that was all they needed.
"No veteran should take the final journey alone," said Michael Sasse, who coordinates the monthly service for unattended veterans.

Pastor Peter Gregory reads a blessing 
Shortly after the cemetery opened in January 2010, it was deluged with handling the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans, said Bob Castor, who served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and now is a firing party leader for the Guardians of the National Cemetery.
Most of the remains came from funeral homes, but others were left by family or friends who, for whatever reason, did not want to arrange or attend a burial, Castor said.
"It's hard to think that a person served the United States of America and wore the cloth of the nation and they had no family — no one to say goodbye to them," he added.
So the national cemetery in Upper Makefield started holding a monthly service for unattended veterans. It holds the ceremony on the last Thursday of every month. Anyone can attend, and typically more than a dozen people do.
The ceremony mirrors the military honors bestowed upon all veterans buried here.
Warriors' Watch Riders provide an escort to a covered shelter with rows of park benches where the riders form a line and hold American flags. A ceremonial urn is placed on a half wall in the shelter.
The uniformed Guardians of the National Cemetery fire a three-volley rifle salute. The bugle wail of taps cuts into the otherwise stone silence during the 20-minute service.
The names of the dead are read. A pastor offers words of comfort.
"Be mindful of the reason we are here," said Peter Gregory, a retired Navy commander and pastor. "We now lay their mortal remains to rest."
On Thursday, two white-gloved uniformed Pennsylvania National Guardsmen folded an American flag into the triangle shape; they then presented it to a cemetery volunteer, who took on the role of family member. The retired flag then is donated back to the cemetery.
The service followed seven other burials that day at the cemetery where as many as 50 people are buried each week, officials said. The unattended veterans service is always the final one of the day.
There is no way to know how many unattended veterans are interred, said Greg Whitney, the cemetery's director. He added that many veteran cemeteries hold similar services.
As many as 10 unattended veterans typically are buried in the cemetery each month, officials said; that only two names were read during this month's service surprised many regular attendees.
In the six years the cemetery has been open, volunteers and employees can recall only one month when the service wasn't held because they had no unattended burials. Then two veterans died the last two days of the month; they ended up being remembered during the following month's service, Sasse said.
Northampton resident and U.S. Marine John Heenan has participated in almost every unattended veteran service.
"From our seat, as the honor guard, we were at least as serious and try as hard as if they were 200 cars," he said. "Sometimes, we think when it's one person we're like the next of kin."
For the last six months, Sellersville resident Bob Oettel, 93, has attended the service as part of the Warriors' Watch Riders. He is an Army veteran who was stationed in France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg during World War II.
"I just can't visualize a soldier being buried and no one coming to his burial," he said. "It makes me feel like I'm giving a little something back."
Marge Weiner is a longtime cemetery volunteer who helps coordinate the unattended service. Her husband is buried in the Washington Crossing cemetery.
She used to try to learn more details about the veterans whose final service she helped arrange. The first ones were mostly Vietnam veterans, she said. Then she started noticing very old and very young veterans. Finally, the experience became too emotionally draining; it got to the point where she said she stopped trying to learn more about the people.
"Why not anymore? It's sad because they're all alone," she said. "I'd rather not know and just honor them."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Young minds forge new attitudes about old mental illness stigmas

Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When he was 14, Christopher Sandy felt no need to hide his diagnosis of attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder.

Now 30, the Hatboro man encourages Bucks County teens to talk about their struggles as part of a school-based program called Ending the Silence, which is designed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by putting a face on it.
"I want the kids to realize they are not alone. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's a disorder of the brain," Sandy said. "People have asthma; you take an inhaler and you're good. For me, it was no different than having a cold."
Christopher Sandy speaking at Unami Middle School
Sandy's attitude is a dramatic departure from previous generations when psychiatric and behavioral disorders were seen as something to be kept secret, mental health experts say. But this new acceptance and greater willingness among young Americans to share personal information publicly has raised concerns among some mental health advocates and parents about possible future implications on job and social prospects in a society where the stigma about mental illness persists.
Approximately 21 percent of children — slightly more than one in five — between 13 and 18 years old will experience a seriously debilitating mental disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
And slightly more than 10 percent of American children — just over one in every 10 kids ages 8 to 15 — were diagnosed with a mental disorder within the past year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder topped the list, followed by mood disorders, the CDC found.
Two decades ago, only about 10 percent of children under 18 who exhibited behaviors consistent with serious behavioral, emotional or mental disorders were diagnosed and treated, compared with roughly 50 percent today, the National Institutes of Mental Health has determined.
Recent studies suggest a greater understanding and acceptance of psychiatric and behavioral disorders as treatable, chronic medical conditions are the reasons behind the dramatic increase in diagnosis and treatment. That's particularly true among children, for whom early intervention shows the best long-term results.

Unami Middle School students listen to program on mental illness
Warminster resident Emily Plewes, 25, was diagnosed with childhood onset schizophrenia when she was a third-grader. Today, she's a college student studying psychology, holds four part-time jobs, and maintains an active social life.
Like Sandy, she also speaks to school kids about living with a mental illness.
As a child, Plewes says that she was bullied more because of her weight and appearance than her schizophrenia, which she didn't hide then either. The negative reactions she experienced came most frequently from adults, she said, but even those were infrequent.
"I feel like I was blessed in that area. I feel like because I'm open, people are more understanding and, when I do kind of bizarre things sometimes, they don't hold it against me," she added.
Emily's childhood experience was unusual, researchers say. A 2010 Case Western Reserve University study — one of the first looking at youths with psychiatric disorders — found at least 90 percent of participants were stigmatized by their illness, which led to feelings of shame and secrecy that limited social interactions. Many study participants reported the attitudes of parents and school officials made them feel better — or worse — depending on those attitudes.
Change of attitude
That is changing, according to recent studies in which college students who have been diagnosed with a mental illness reporting they experience less stigma on campus than the stigma the general population experiences.
Colleges also say they're seeing an increase in students reporting to counseling centers with anxiety disorders and clinical depression and more serious incidents that require immediate intervention, according to a series last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University found that more than 100,000 college students at 140 U.S. colleges and universities — about half of those surveyed last year — had sought mental health treatment. The center's 2015 report noted, on average, a roughly 30 percent increase in college students seeking counseling services and a 38 percent increase in students keeping counseling center appointments over the previous five years.  
That's a trend Bernice Pescosolido, director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research, has noticed evolving over the last three decades. She said she also has seen a greater willingness among her students at Indiana University to openly discuss their mental illness diagnosis in class, where years ago they waited until afterward to talk with her privately.
While Pescosolido agrees Americans are more knowledgeable about mental illness today, she said there's still a strong reluctance to fully embrace individuals who are mentally ill. Many Americans still consider people who are treated for psychiatric disorders as unpredictable, unstable and dangerous, which can make public disclosure risky, she added.
"Mental illness has become a uniquely American metaphor for evil," Pescosolido said. "That whole line, if someone has diabetes, you wouldn’t tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that seems to have taken us as far as we go. That hasn't translated into "Yes, it's OK if they marry into my family or work closely with me in a job.' "
Such lingering negative attitudes are why some parents worry about their children going public with a mental illness diagnosis.
"Sometimes you worry if someone, say from a college she is trying to get into, may see (her talking about her diagnosis) and where, I take it as a strength, they may not," said Lynn Plewes, Emily's mom. "There are some things that you don't know, like how a future employer might not take it as 'acceptingly.' My thing is, then they must not want a good person."
When her oldest son landed his first job collecting shopping carts at age 16, Warminster resident Debbie Moritz says she struggled over whether to tell his employer about his childhood-onset schizophrenia.
"What I ultimately did was let him decide and he decided not to tell anybody," said Moritz, executive director of the Bucks County NAMI chapter. "But I worried, what if he had some problems at work and he didn't have the support there."
In the end, her concerns were unfounded, she added. Today her son, who has a different last name, is 34, married, and has a job. Still, she added, he typically doesn't disclose his illness to employers or coworkers, Moritz said. 
A growing body of research suggests a greater exposure to people with a mental or behavioral disorder creates greater tolerance and understanding and allows others to see the illness as only one piece of a person's identity.
"You have to think of it as a part of the fabric of their lives," said Pescosolido, who sits on the National Research Council's Committee on the Science of Changing Behavioral Health Social Norms. “The only way to fight stigma is to fight it on all levels all the time.... It’s a little like 'Whack-a-Mole' — if you push it down in one place, it pops up somewhere else.”
Ending the Silence
What people believe about behavioral health and substance abuse is created and reinforced at multiple levels, including the media, community norms and government law and policies, according to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report released in April. It found a major factor in predicting attitudes toward behavioral or psychiatric disorders is whether an individual has had prior contact with someone with such a disorder.

The human element of mental illness is the strategy behind Ending the Silence, a 50-minute school-based program offered in 26 states — including Pennsylvania — through the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The program targets ninth- and 10th-graders, focusing on early warning signs and steering students toward resources for more information and help.
“Schools are recognizing they must address mental health better in the school setting," said Darcy Gruttadaro, NAMI's national advocacy director. "This is not a taboo subject. This is part of the human condition.”
NAMI is conducting long-term research into the effectiveness of Ending the Silence, Gruttadaro said. A 2011 study on the effectiveness of a similar mental health curriculum for middle school students found those who took the six-week course showed less apprehension about interacting with people with mental illness than students who didn't take the course.
Bucks County schools were among the first in the USA to use Ending the Silence. The Bucks NAMI chapter purchased it from the DuPage, Illinois, NAMI chapter that created it in 2012, Moritz said. The Illinois chapter donated the program to the national chapter in 2014.
The program has been used primarily in the Central Bucks School District, but plans are to expand it to the Centennial and New Hope-Solebury districts next year, Moritz said.
Laurie Pepe, who coordinates the Bucks County Ending the Silence program, said schools are receptive to its message. "It’s growing rapidly, to the point they’re reaching out to us to come in,” she said.
Earlier this year, at the request of a Centennial School District the program was presented to eighth-graders at one of its middle schools after administrators there reported more students exhibiting signs of social anxiety, Pepe said.
'Accepting what I am'
During another presentation, in April at Unami Middle School in the Central Bucks School District, about half the 100 ninth-graders in the audience raised their hands when asked if they, or someone they knew, had a mental illness.
Afterward, the handful of teens who talked to a reporter said students are reluctant to talk about mental struggles with adults but not so much with their peers. They expressed concern that teens in mental distress may hesitate to seek help because they fear people will label them as attention-seekers.
One 14-year-old girl who was interviewed admitted she sometimes feels anxious and awkward at parties. "It's gotten, like, bad,” she said.
But she, like the others interviewed, said she has friends she can text message or call whenever she feels emotionally overwhelmed.
A key component of the Ending the Silence program is its use of young adults with mental illness — like Christopher Sandy and Emily Plewes — as presenters. They show students that a mental health diagnosis doesn't prevent you from leading successful lives.
Former presenter Marissa Gates, who left the program after getting a full-time job, said she found many students weren't used to having someone talk openly about mental health.
After her presentations, the 23-year-old Warminster resident said she frequently had students ask questions and share personal experiences — telling her it was the first time they felt comfortable talking to someone about mental health issues.
After a presentation at her former middle school, Gates said a student told her she knew nothing about mental illness before listening to Gates. “That was something that was pretty big," Gates said.
Growing up, Gates said she wished she had someone to talk to about the way her parents behaved. At age 9, she and her twin sister were removed from their parents' custody and placed with relatives.
It wasn't until after Gates was diagnosed with depression at age 17 that she learned her parents had severe mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia.
“It was very scary, at first, when I was first diagnosed because I think, for myself, I put a lot of stigma around it," she said. “Mental health was very much swept under the rug in my family. There wasn’t room to really talk about it. There was a lot of shame built around mental health in general.”
When she found the right support after she was diagnosed, Gates said her perception about mental illness changed. In therapy, she felt free to express herself for her first time, and her friends encouraged her not to let depression define her as a person.
After she started openly speaking about her depression, Gates said the only negative response came from family members who worried it would reflect badly on her and them. They've since changed that view, Gates said.
“They’ve seen how much I’ve grown, both in the person that I am and professionally, just based off me sharing my story. I think that has helped them realize it’s OK to share," she said. "Even if I am stigmatized, all that matters is I am accepting what I am.”

Pa. auditor general: 1 in 5 calls to state child abuse hotline went unanswered

Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pennsylvania child advocates were anticipating that significant changes in the state's child protective services law would mean a dramatic increase of calls involving allegations of child abuse and neglect.
But they didn't expect to have to wait as long as 90 minutes to speak to a state hotline worker.
"Our experience with ChildLine has been frustrating. We, too, were not able to get through," said Lynne Rainey, executive director of Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services. "It has improved, but there are still delays."
Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale
Delays last year resulted in more than one in five calls to the state's child abuse hotline going unanswered, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Tuesday at a press conference unveiling the interim findings of an audit of the hotline.
DePasquale authorized the special performance audit to determine if the hotline is processing calls according to laws, regulations and policies. ChildLine is responsible for receiving, referring and tracking suspected child abuse and neglect allegations. It is part of the Department of Human Services.
"Unacceptable" and "unexcusable" are among the words that DePasquale used when describing the initial findings.
"Any one of those calls could have led to a life or death situation for that child," DePasquale said. "It's past time for this to get fixed."
DePasquale and Secretary of Health and Human Services Theodore Dallas agreed the increase in unanswered calls was the result of inadequate staffing to handle the volume generated by changes in the state's Child Protective Services Law, which expanded the list of those mandated to report child abuse, the definition of who qualifies as an abuser and the definition of abuse.
The changes gave ChildLine additional responsibilities for registering information involving general protective services referrals and child protective services referrals. 
Lawmakers did not include additional ChildLine funding with the changes, the officials said.
"There should have been an anticipation with the amount of people now required to go through these checks. It would have led to an increase in calls and for some reason that was not anticipated," DePasquale said.
While the audit is ongoing, Dallas' office is undertaking changes, including hiring more caseworkers and directing the chief of staff for the Office of Children, Youth and Families to directly oversee ChildLine.
The number of unanswered calls has dropped to 12 percent since implementation of some of the changes last year, Dallas said. The agency's goal is to bring the number down to 4 percent by the end of the year, he said, and he has requested another $1.8 million from the state to support ChildLine operations for next year.
Last year, ChildLine received 188,357 calls — 23,446 more than 2014. Nearly 42,000 — almost a quarter — went unanswered, the interim data shows.
In 2014, before the changes took effect, the hotline received 164,911 calls and 6,780 — roughly 4 percent — went unanswered. Not all calls to the hotline result in an abuse or neglect referral.
Besides an increase in unanswered calls, the auditor general's interim report found:
  • The average wait time for callers to be connected to a caseworker jumped from an average of less than 1 minute in 2014 to an average of up to 7 minutes.
  • The longest a caller waited on hold before a caseworker answered was nearly an hour. A year earlier, the longest wait was 29 minutes.
  • Thirteen percent of callers (23,789) put on hold last year hung up before speaking to a caseworker. Another 9 percent of callers (18,201) had their calls immediately terminated because too many people were on hold, the report found. A year earlier, 2.5 percent and 1.5 percent of ChildLine callers, respectively, abandoned their calls or were immediately terminated, according to the report.
  • One-third of hotline calls in 2014 and last year were not documented, so it's unclear if they involved abuse, neglect or an unrelated matter.
  • ChildLine managers failed to adequately monitor caseworker performance; supervisors monitored only seven calls last year taken by three caseworkers when there was an average of 46 caseworkers on staff.
  • At no point last year was ChildLine adequately staffed, despite dramatic increases in caller volume. Sometimes they were so shorthanded that supervisors answered calls leading to the lapse in monitoring of caseworkers.
The audit period spans from Jan. 1, 2014, until the audit is completed later this year, according to the interim report. The initial findings were so alarming, DePasquale said, they prompted him to release them ahead of the full audit.
As a result of the call-wait finding, DHS has set a new maximum limit of 30 calls on hold as of October; before that, DHS could provide no specifics on the number of calls that could be placed on hold before new calls were immediately terminated, the audit findings said.
In Bucks County, referrals through ChildLine nearly doubled between 2014 and last year, climbing from 3,272 to 6,169, Rainey said. Those numbers continue to climb with 1,671 referrals during the first quarter of this year.
All calls that come directly to the county agency are responded to within a designated protocol including all immediate home contacts, even with the increased volume. The agency has added additional staff.
"We continue to see an increase in numbers of new reports and it continues to be a challenge to provide staff coverage 24/7 due to the high volume," Rainey said.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Montgomery County Children and Youth Social Services Director Laurie O’Connor for comment Tuesday.
Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice, a Berks County-based child advocacy organization, called the interim report significant. She and other advocates had been pushing for nearly six years for a third-party audit of call-wait times for the hotline.
"Today we finally have the independent confirmation that the Commonwealth has for too long neglected the very front end of how we protect children," Palm said in an statement. "It is both telling and quite troubling that as a Commonwealth we have made a massive push for individuals to report suspected child abuse without sufficiently preparing for or being responsive to the crushing demand created on ChildLine."
Palm also touched on another issue in the report involving a failure to document or track all calls.
More than 111,000 calls were received by ChildLine in 2014 and 2015 which did not generate a referral report, and the assumption by DHS is the calls were not for concerns involving children, the audit found. These non-referred calls could include someone asking for the phone number of a county child welfare agency or wrong numbers or questions.
But without tracking, there is no way to know if any calls involved suspected abuse or neglect, the auditor general said.
Preliminary data for last year suggests that of the 188,357 calls ChildLine received last year, fewer than 40,000 were suspected child abuse or neglect, according to the Department of Human Services.
Of the 39,815 suspected cases of child abuse or neglect, 4,172 cases — or 9.5 percent — were substantiated according to available preliminary data, DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said. She added the final child abuse substantiation data will be released in late August.
That so many calls to ChildLine did not involve abuse or neglect reporting is something that child advocates have long suspected, Palm said.
"We have to get smarter at helping mandated reporters navigate when to call ChildLine and when to enlist other community-based or statewide information and referral lines for the family in need of housing, food or child care assistance," she said.
Finding ways to divert non-abuse related calls was among the eight recommendations the auditor general report had for DHS. It also suggested DHS determine a staffing level based on call volume and keep the staffing at that level and investigate recording hotline calls for training purposes.
Since he assumed his position 16 months ago, Dallas said he has increased ChildLine staff from 48 to 79 full-time employees, including supervisors, and he has three more full-time positions to fill. He also has increased electronic submissions of referrals 82 percent between January 2015 and March.
He also is developing an outreach plan to educate people about where non-abuse related calls should be directed, so that hotline caseworkers have more time to answer calls involving abuse or neglect allegations.
Later this year, the department anticipates the release of new technology used in ChildLine will include more efficiency features and implementation of a new monitoring program for caseworkers, Dallas said.
"With those changes, I think we are a lot better off than when I got here," Dallas added. "I think we are headed in the right direction."

Trial starts Monday for former Bucks doc accused of multimillion pill mill operation

Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2016
Over the last decade, the career of Dr. William J. O'Brien III has been a series of meteoric highs and seemingly bottomless lows, according to court records.
The former Bucks County doctor of osteopathic medicine operated a successful chain of six family medicine and pain management practices in the Philadelphia region. His homes included a $1.9 million penthouse in Rittenhouse Square and a Jersey Shore house in Beach Haven.
The multi-person hyberbaric oxygen chamber that he invented and patented was used at Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol Township. In 2009, he organized about 80 local doctors who made a failed attempted to buy the hospital.
Not long after the hospital purchase fell through, O'Brien's contract for hyperbaric medicine services there ended. Shortly after that, his company, WJO Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Dr. William J. O'Brien III
Then, the FBI raided his new hyperbaric practice just days before it was scheduled to open in 2011, seizing boxes of records and his multi-person oxygen chamber. Less than a year later, the court appointed trustee overseeing his bankruptcy proceedings terminated him and his then-wife as WJO employees.
The 50-year-old doctor has been in federal custody without bail for the last 15 months. His Pennsylvania medical license is suspended. In court documents, O'Brien claims he's so broke he can't afford a lawyer to defend him against federal charges that he amassed millions of dollars over three years through fraud, money laundering and drug trafficking.
When his trial starts Monday, O'Brien will act as his own lawyer in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, according to authorities.
Those federal authorities allege O'Brien ran a multimillion-dollar prescription pill mill that involved members of a violent outlaw motorcycle gang and contributed to the death of a Bucks County man. He faces 114 counts of distribution of controlled substances, specifically the narcotic painkiller oxycodone, methadone and amphetamines, and other offenses, including fraud and unlawfully distributing a controlled substance those distribution resulted in death.
O'Brien is also charged separately with defrauding the federal government and insurers of millions of dollars by fraudulent use of the oxygen chamber. The two cases will be tried together, according to U.S. Court spokeswoman Patty Hartman.
Prosecutors anticipate their case will take four weeks to present, Hartman said. Two lawyers have been assigned to assist O'Brien, if necessary, during the proceedings, Hartman added. One of those lawyers, George Newman, said he didn't have anything to say about the case.
The prosecution anticipates introducing 900 patient files as evidence. Witnesses will include federal agents, including two undercover agents who posed as prescription seekers. Other witnesses will include experts in pain management, former employees, and people who allegedly received prescriptions in exchange for cash or sex.
Authorities allege O'Brien netted nearly $2 million from the pill mill operation and another $4 million in insurance reimbursements for treating patients with the hyperbaric oxygen chamber between 2012 and January 2015.
He lived a lavish lifestyle "well beyond the means of a family practice physician," which he purported to be, according to the government's trial memorandum filed Wednesday.
Federal authorities believe that is because, in March 2012 -- two years after he filed for bankruptcy protection -- O'Brien began using four of his medical practices, including those in Bensalem and Bristol Township, as fronts to sell prescriptions for addictive narcotics. He allegedly developed a scheme with a senior member of the Pagans motorcycle club that involved recruiting "patients" who would typically pay O'Brien $200 cash in exchange for prescriptions for controlled substances.
Once the prescriptions were filled, the “patients” gave the drugs to others, who sold them to drug dealers, according to court documents. The indictment alleges O'Brien prescribed drugs like oxycodone, Percocet and methadone without performing physical exams or other medical care or treatment and that he also falsified medical records.
In December 2013, one of O'Brien's patients, Joseph Ennis, 38, was found dead in his apartment. An autopsy found the man died from the adverse effects of drugs, specifically methadone, oxycodone and Flexeril, a muscle relaxer, which O'Brien prescribed to him at his Bristol Township practice, according to court documents.
With people exchanging cash for drugs, O’Brien could conceal money from creditors and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, authorities allege.
Between July 2012 and the January 2015 indictment, O'Brien was making $20,000 a week in cash through his illegal prescription operation, according to the trial memorandum.
While bank records showed he made a single $100 cash deposit in his account, then-wife and WJO official Elizabeth Hibbs was making regular cash deposits totaling $366,350 in a total of five accounts at three banks, according to records. She concealed another $114,950 in two safety deposit boxes in Newtown Township and Philadelphia, authorities said. They also allege they found tens of thousands of dollars hidden in O'Brien's houses and cars when they executed search warrants.
Hibbs is among a dozen others who were charged along with O'Brien. She and the others have all pleaded guilty to various offenses, Hartman said. Hibbs pleaded guilty to diverting and concealing assets from the bankruptcy court trustees and knowingly making a false statement under oath during bankruptcy proceedings.
Hibbs was, at times, the chief operating officer and chief executive officer for WJO. She and O’Brien were married when the bankruptcy petition was filed in 2010. They later divorced, though they continued to live and work together, court documents noted.
O’Brien is also charged with diverting assets from WJO Inc. to personal and other accounts that he and Hibbs controlled, concealing assets and lying under oath during bankruptcy proceedings.
In a separate indictment, the federal government has accused O'Brien of conspiring to defraud the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and conspiracy to commit health insurance fraud. Authorities allege O’Brien knowingly made misrepresentations to the FDA to obtain the agency’s clearance for his 10-person hyperbaric chamber, which he marketed under the name Hyperox 101.
A hyperbaric chamber is a medical device that lets patients breathe 100 percent pure oxygen for a prolonged period in a pressurized environment. In recent years, the treatment has seen renewed interest, especially for chronic wound care, one of its FDA-approved uses. The treatment appears to speed the healing process by delivering more oxygen to injured areas.
Under FDA requirements, a hyperbaric chamber that treats patients must be constructed of a certain kind of steel and certified as a pressure vessel for human occupancy. O'Brien's Hyperox model was made from pieces of a used propane tank that were welded together, the indictment alleges. As a result of its “substandard” construction, the device didn't provide patients with therapeutic benefits and put them at potential risk, court records show.
He also is accused of defrauding Medicare and other health benefit programs between March 2007 and August 2011 for submitting $15 million in claims for what authorities called “medically unnecessary and potentially unsafe” treatments.   

Bucks lawmaker seeks to toughen laws on unscrupulous home improvement contractors

Posted: Thursday, May 19, 2016
Home improvement contractors who perform work in Pennsylvania without registering with the state would face potential felony charges under a bill introduced in the Senate on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 1266, which was submitted by Bucks County Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-6, Bensalem, also would create criminal penalties for contractors who provide false or incomplete information in a registration application and grant the Consumer Protection Bureau in the Attorney General's Office new power to refuse, suspend or revoke a registration if the agency proves fraud, deception, misrepresentation or other violations of the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act were committed.
Sen. Tommy Tomlinson
A registration also would be revoked or rejected if an applicant was convicted of a crime involving theft, deception, fraud, misrepresentation or “moral turpitude,” as well as for gross negligence, incompetence or professional misconduct. Contractors with a suspended or revoked license in another state for similar reasons also wouldn't be able to register in Pennsylvania.
The bill is designed to address loopholes in the 2009 Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, which created new regulations and penalties for the home improvement industry in the state and an online database of registered contractors. Statewide, 67,694 contractors were registered as of Thursday, according to the AG's office.
The current law requires contractors who perform at least $5,000 worth of home improvement work annually carry a minimum of $50,000 insurance and register with the AG's Bureau of Consumer Protection. They also are required to provide information about prior bankruptcy filings, criminal convictions and civil judgments.
But lying on a registration application or not registering at all isn't a crime; instead, scofflaws can face fines of up to $1,000 to $3,000 per violation. The current law also requires a court order to keep contractors who don't follow the law off the registry, but even with a court order a contractor can petition for reinstatement after five years.
Under the proposed amendment, failure to register would be a third-degree felony for contractors who enter into a home-improvement agreement for more than $2,000; if the contract is for less than $2,000, the charge would be a first-degree misdemeanor.
The bill was referred to the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, which Tomlinson chairs. It already has 10 co-sponsors, including Montgomery County Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, of Upper Moreland.
Tomlinson previously cited this news organization's 2015 two-part series — “Building a Case” — with raising his awareness of the law’s shortfalls and leading to his proposed amendment. The series examined how lax enforcement and legal loopholes has led to slow justice for Pennsylvanians who allege home improvement fraud.
Roughly half of at least two dozen contractors accused or convicted of home-improvement related crimes in Bucks County since 2009 were registered with the state as required, but they left out information or lied on applications, according to prosecutors and a review of applications following their arrests.
At least two Bucks County contractors with criminal theft and fraud convictions continued working in home repairs and construction fields with valid state registrations until they were arrested a second time on home improvement fraud charges. One of those convicted contractors, John Salvatico, of Doylestown, skirted the law by registering his business in his wife's name.
Home improvement contractors are the top subject of complaints received by Bucks County Consumer Protection, according to agency director Michael Bannon. Those contractors also frequently have failed to update their registration, which lasts two years, or let their insurance coverage lapse.
Bannon believes, if adopted, the proposed amendments would go a long way toward tightening the existing law and discouraging unscrupulous contractors.
"It will give the ability to take action and certainly the unregistered contractor will now have to comply with the law and that will be fair to the good businesses that have been doing it all along," Bannon said.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

As grand jury investigation continues, Solebury School abuse accusers tell story in Harrisburg

Carole Trickett, 14, in 1952 
Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2016
On a November day in 2014, Carole Trickett had just spent an hour testifying before a grand jury about a part of her childhood she spent most of her 79 years trying to put out of her mind, when a Bucks County prosecutor posed one last question to the 1954 Solebury School graduate.

How did she think the alleged sex abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of one of the school's founders affected her life?

The Maine resident answered, but only after she took two minutes to compose herself, she said during a recent phone interview. She doesn't recall her exact answer, but does remember the question left her astonished.
"They need to understand this is not just having your appendix out. It's affected me in many ways," said Trickett. "It doesn't go away."
While the painful memories of child sex abuse don't expire, the time limits for victims to take court action against their abusers does.
For example, only one of the reportedly dozens of alleged sex abuse victims over decades at Solebury School, a private boarding school, falls within the legal time frames for pursuing criminal and civil action, according to sources close to the now 18-month-old grand jury investigation. 
Trickett and others want to see that changed. It's why she will appear, along with other alleged Solebury School sex abuse victims and statute of limitations reform supporters, at the Pennsylvania Capitol on Wednesday for an event to bring attention to proposed legislation that would extend — in some cases eliminate — those time limits. 
House Bill 1947, the first piece of legislation since 2002 addressing the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims both civilly and criminally, was passed out of the House last month.
The bill seeks to add 20 years to the current civil deadline for alleged victims who are now under age 50, extending it until their 50th birthday. It also would waive sovereign immunity for state and local public institutions in cases of "gross negligence," meaning that abuse victims could file civil suits against them, as well as their perpetrators.
It also would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for certain sex crimes — such as rape — against children. Currently, prosecutors can pursue criminal charges of sex abuse until a victim's 50th birthday, but only if the victim is now under age 40, said attorney Marci Hamilton, a senior fellow for research on religion at the University of Pennsylvania and academic chair of CHILD USA, a new think tank focused on child abuse and neglect. Pennsylvania's current criminal statute of limitations already has expired for victims over age 40, she said. 
"The problem that we face is that perpetrators get all those decades to prey on children and we have shut people out of the court system so they can't identify who those predators are," Hamilton said. "So unless we push back the SOL, it just is not possible to get the predators before they get that next victim."
Marci Hamilton
Hamilton, a nationally recognized advocate for children, represents a 2005 Solebury School graduate who alleges she was sexually abused by a former faculty member during her senior year.
"We're seeing institution after institution being named. We're seeing victims coming forward," Hamilton said. "We have an epidemic and a cover-up and the trick is how do you get adults to protect children rather than just protecting their own interests."
Hamilton believes that extending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims is critical, since many struggle into adulthood about whether to disclose abuse, citing fear, shame or embarrassment. They are reactions that institutions and pedophiles count on to delay action and protect reputations, but they also allow the abuse to continue in secret, she said.
In states where the statute of limitations has been extended for sex abuse cases, such as Massachusetts, more individuals are coming forward, she said.
The bill's opponents include the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania. Critics contend it would expose public schools — and taxpayers — to potentially expensive lawsuits and settlement awards.
The bill is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Montgomery County Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, the author of two earlier laws that amended the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims in 1985 and 2002.
Greenleaf said his office is gathering information about how the proposed changes compare with statutes of limitations in other states. He plans to hold a committee hearing on the bill sometime in June, and afterward the committee could vote to move it to the Senate floor.
"We want to be fair about this, but the facts are I don't think anybody disputes what the facts are," Greenleaf added.
Fairness is all that Trickett wants.
She was a 14-year-old freshman floundering in Algebra 1 when Robert Shaw, a founder of the school in Solebury, offered to tutor her, she said. Soon the two were having sex, which continued through her senior year, she said.
"It was such a mythology he gave me. I was a young girl very much in need," she said. "I thought I was being saved. I was so taken in by him. It took me a long time to understand what happened."
It wasn't until she was 60 years old that Trickett successfully started to deal with her childhood abuse in therapy, she said. The breakthrough has led her on a near two-decade quest for validation.
Along her journey, she confronted her former headmaster, who was 90 at the time, with her allegations, which she said he didn't deny. She hired a lawyer and confronted school officials and turned down their offer to pay for her continued therapy and a promise to raise money to cover the counseling for other alleged abuse victims. 
Trickett said she continued pursuing school officials with her abuse allegations, even writing to the alumni magazine. In 2012, she received a letter from Tom Wilschutz, the school's headmaster since 2008, asking if he could come to Maine to meet with her, she said. She agreed and the subsequent meeting ended with Wilschutz apologizing to Trickett for what happened to her decades earlier, she said.
"He spoke with warmth and respect," she said, adding, "his main responsibility, however, of course, is to protect the school."
In a second meeting in 2013, Trickett said that Wilschutz showed her a letter he wrote disclosing the allegations of past sexual abuse of students by former school faculty and apologizing to victims. He also told Trickett that he had a portrait of Shaw removed from the school dining hall, eliminated a student award in his name, and no longer allows donations in Shaw's name, she said. 
In July 2014, Wilschutz released the letter to the community, posting it on the school's website and mailing it to alumni. In a subsequent letter, Wilschutz revealed the abuse allegations involving school founder Shaw, but did not disclose the name of his alleged child victim. He also outlined the steps to remove Shaw's legacy from the school.
Trickett said that she considers the headmaster's efforts as validation to her claims.
"I was grateful for those steps, but I didn't want to let him off the hook altogether," she said. "I'm still pursuing this (by telling her story) because there are a lot of people who need to be honored." 
They include Hamilton's client, a 28-year-old former Solebury day student who alleges she was sexually abused by a former faculty member during her senior year in 2005. The women asked that she not be identified because, in part, she has not told most friends and family about the alleged abuse.
In a telephone interview this week, the woman said the inappropriate conduct was a poorly kept secret on campus and the surrounding community that haunted her then, and now. The school's headmaster at the time confronted her about the rumors, but she denied it. The faculty member remained at the school until he was let go for an unrelated reason and never criminally charged.
After she learned that the school and county prosecutors were looking into the allegations of sexual abuse on the campus, the woman said, she contacted the DA's office seeking more details. She was unsure if she wanted to disclose her alleged abuse at that time, but wanted to know more about her options, she added.
The woman eventually was directed to Wilschutz, from whom she learned that six other people had given him her name as a possible abuse victim, she said.
"It's taken me a very long time to talk about this. It's something I didn't emotionally deal with for a long time," the woman said. "It was a very dark time in my life. Even now, 10 years later, I'm still mortified, still embarrassed by it and ashamed by it."
In an email request seeking comment on the woman's claims, Wilschutz said he has had conversations with a "number" of former students who have come forward, but declined to identify any specific individual.
The Bucks County District Attorney's Office acknowledged the investigation into the sexual abuse allegations at the 91-year-old private middle and high school started nearly two years ago, when claims of abuse surfaced.
While attorneys, court employees and jurors, by law, are prohibited from revealing the existence of a grand jury or of any of its proceedings, witnesses, like Trickett, are not.
Assistant District Attorney Monica Furber, who is overseeing the investigation, Solebury Police Detective Cpl. Jonathan Koretzky, who inherited the case from former Detective Roy Ferrari after he was convicted of unrelated theft charges, and Wilschutz all declined comment on the grand jury.
Koretzky did confirm that no open police investigations are underway outside of the 2014 investigation.
Wilschutz said the school continues to cooperate fully with the district attorney's office. He added that staff are "well trained" to prevent, identify and report abuse, all employees undergo full background checks at time of of hire and follow up checks.
"We continue to make every effort to have policies, procedures and training in place to prevent any harm to our students and we have a 'zero tolerance' practice should something occur," he added.