Cota’s Hospitality Home looked just as you might picture a mom-and-pop eldercare residence in rural Vermont. Residents of the modest farmhouse outside Barre could sit on the porch under a rusty metal awning to watch cars pass by. The owners lived and worked there.
But inside the residential care home, regulators found chronic problems. Beginning in 2006, Cota’s operated in what the Vermont Attorney General’s Office would later describe as “substantial or habitual violation” of state rules.
Inspectors cited Cota’s 30 times and fined the business more than $10,000. They documented medication errors, broken toilets, warm refrigerators, inadequate care and missing employee background checks.
Regulators at one point barred the home from accepting new residents, but Cota’s did anyway — prompting another fine.
The problems clearly concerned regulators, who visited again and again. But when state officials mounted a sustained enforcement effort, they prompted an unanticipated crisis.
Cota’s was in some ways an atypical eldercare home. Michael Cota, who ran the place, had previously worked as a caregiver at a state psychiatric hospital. From 2001 to 2014, his then-wife, Tammy, co-owned and managed the business.
Cota’s accepted people other homes wouldn’t, in exchange for their Social Security and Medicaid dollars. While some residents were elderly, others were young adults. Its 17 or so tenants had mental illnesses on top of physical disabilities, Michael Cota recently told Seven Days. Some were on parole.
“We really went out of our way to make the place homey, to make the place comfortable,” he said.
But a series of inspections in January and March 2016, when regulators were redoubling efforts to address problems, told a different story. The inspectors noted filth and clutter: clothes heaped in a pile, a ripped mattress, torn wallpaper, overflowing wastebaskets, a “soiled and unsanitary” bathtub, grimy and “odorous” floors.
Meanwhile, an investigator from Adult Protective Services probed three residents’ complaints about how Cota treated them, including an allegation that he threatened to “bury them in the backyard” over late rent. Cota denied saying such a thing. Nevertheless, investigator Jason Bachus found that what he called Cota’s “bullying tactics” amounted to verbal and emotional abuse.
That elevated the situation to a new level. It appeared Cota would soon be added to Vermont’s Adult Abuse Registry, which would bar him from working with vulnerable adults.
Citing “imminent danger,” the state asked a Washington County Superior Court judge in March 2016 to appoint an outside operator, or “receiver,” to take over management of the home. The rare move was necessary, the state contended, because Cota had ignored a promise not to be alone with residents during the investigation and continued his campaign of verbal abuse.
Cota strenuously denied the accusations. But he did not contest the appointment of a temporary receiver to run the home while its future was sorted out.
Within two weeks, Cota’s remaining staff stopped showing up for work. Kathy Robinson, then the home’s assistant manager and a close friend of Cota’s, told Seven Days that officials had upset the employees by “barking orders.”
“We know what our jobs are, and we’re doing them really well. It’s like, treat us better than this. Don’t come in here talking to us like that,” she said.
The upshot: On a Friday afternoon, state officials had to scramble to find new homes for residents. Two were taken to hospitals. Most of the 14 others headed to interim arrangements. Cota’s was effectively closed.
Today, Cota contends that the state shut down the home based on false accusations made up by three difficult, newer residents. He provided Seven Days with a ruling from a closed-door “fair hearing” that showed Human Services Board hearing officer Paul Brierre overturned the abuse findings against him a year after his home shuttered. In March 2017, Brierre wrote that testimony of the sole alleged victim who appeared was “contradicted, implausible, and refuted or undermined.”
Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living Commissioner Monica Hutt told Seven Days this month that the department had been right to seek receivership, even though the abuse findings were later overturned. The state’s allegations were “based on credible and reliable information available to the Department at the time,” Hutt wrote in an email, and included problems beyond the alleged resident abuse.
As part of the receivership resolution, Cota agreed to never seek another residential care home license.
But this story has a postscript.
Last year Cota got a permit from the Town of Barre to reopen — this time as a boarding house. He’s partnering with Good Samaritan Haven, a local homeless shelter, to rent rooms to its clients for $600 a month.
Good Samaritan Haven’s recently hired executive director, Rob Farrell, told Seven Days he was not aware of the previous allegations against Cota.
The new residents, he said, haven’t reported any problems.
- Looking for info about a specific home? Find the Vermont Eldercare Navigator here.
- Got a story to share? Tell us what’s happening at your elder care home at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Have a complaint about an eldercare home? Alert state regulators at email@example.com.
- Want to report elder abuse? In an emergency, call 911. You can also reach Adult Protective Services at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-800-564-1612 or by visiting dail.vermont.gov.
“Worse for Care” is a joint investigation by Vermont Public Radio and Seven Days into assisted living and residential care homes for the elderly. In addition to publishing stories over four weeks, we’ve launched the Vermont Elder Care Navigator, a searchable database at eldercare.sevendaysvt.com.
It was produced by: at VPR, Emily Corwin, reporter, and Mark Davis, editor; and at Seven Days, Derek Brouwer, reporter, Andrea Suozzo, data editor, Matthew Roy and Candace Page, editors, and James Buck, photographer.