Iron Range media brushes aside Hillcrest neglect allegations

Last Thursday, the Star Tribune ran a Paul McEnroe story about allegations of neglect at the Hillcrest assisted living facility in Chisholm, Minnesota. It begins as follows:

When the ambulance crew members arrived at the assisted-living facility in Chisholm, Minn., they entered a room so foul with the smell of urine that their eyes watered. Inside, the furniture was filthy and ripped, and black mold festered on a table. Old cans of food were strewn about, and the bed had no linens.

Sitting in a recliner amid the filth was a resident with developmental disabilities and mental illness — unconscious and suffering from critically low blood sugar due to diabetes and a urinary tract infection. He was barely alive. The crew stabilized him and rushed him to a nearby hospital, and he is now recovering from an undetermined period of neglect documented in a report by a state investigator.

The report, due to be released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Health, has concluded that the resident was the victim of neglect at the facility — Hillcrest Terrace at Chisholm. Investigators found that the staff failed to tell a nurse about the man’s steadily deteriorating condition and failed “to maintain a livable environment.”

Hillcrest wouldn’t comment in that story. But the next day, Range Development CEO Jim Fena and his top administrator of Hillcrest Randy Schroetter talked to Mesabi Daily News editor Bill Hanna. The story ran Saturday in sister publication, the Hibbing Daily Tribune, the readership of which actually includes the Hillcrest Chisholm location. Fena and Schroetter claim that the report’s allegations are being addressed and that the state issued no fines. From that story:

But it’s the Star Tribune story by reporter Paul McEnroe, not the department’s findings, that has angered Schroeder and Fena.

In the story, McEnroe writes that when ambulance crew members arrived at Hillcrest on a January day, “…they entered a room so foul with the smell of urine their eyes watered. Inside, the furniture was filthy, ripped, and black mold festered on a table.”

The furniture was that of the resident, who had turned down offers by Hillcrest to buy him some new items, Fena said.

He didn’t want to part with it. It’s his.”

Also, there was no mold on the table.

“We believe it was pop on the end table or coffee stains,” Schroeder said.

The story didn’t end there. Hanna and the MDN wrote another story Sunday that ran in Virginia and Hibbing. In the Hibbing Daily Tribune, the headline was “Star Tribune story hurtful to Hillcrest, resident.”

In this story, quoting another Hillcrest employee, it’s inferred that the Star Tribune story is what really hurt this resident. I remind you that an ambulance had to come pick this man up and he was hospitalized for two days.

CHISHOLM — A worker at the Hillcrest Terrace assisted living facility in Chisholm recently received a rather peculiar call from a reporter.

“I want to talk to someone to give me information on someone who died there because of your neglect and maltreatment,” she recalls the StarTribune reporter, who left his name (Paul McEnroe) and phone number, saying it twice.

It was a strange query, considering there had been no death at Hillcrest, the facility’s general manager, Randy Schroetter, said.

The call was related to a Minnesota Department of Health case dealing with a January incident where a longtime Hillcrest resident was taken by ambulance from his room at the assisted living facility to the hospital for treatment due to a diabetes-related incident.

The department’s report was released on Friday, but someone had leaked it to the Star Tribune reporter as the newspaper’s story ran on Thursday.


Fena said the way the story and headline were written, “It makes us sound like we keep him in his room and give him a pork chop sometimes. He’s a good, independent man with some problems. It’s just disgusting and unfair to him and our good staff. We are in shock and dismayed about the way it is written.”

It’s true that we don’t have all the facts here. I’d like to know what the social worker actually says (not in the story). I’d like to know what a health care professional says about the kinds of blood sugar issues this patient faced, how they happen and how often they occur in facilities like this (not in the story). I’d like to know what this patient’s family thinks, or what the families of other residents would think if it happened to their relative (not in the story).

I know what I would think if something like this happened to my relative, and it certainly wasn’t reflected in the tone of the MDN stories, which ran in the Hibbing Daily Tribune and elsewhere in the ACM newspapers of northern Minnesota. I’d like to know if the statewide trend pushing more elderly people toward assisted living instead of nursing homes is working, and what the costs are to human life and dignity. Maybe that will be a future story? I sure hope so.

I wrote about this issue in 2008. As you can see, this is exactly what I was worried about then. Assisted living facilities like Hillcrest work well for many people in many situations, but are not ideal for others. I have heard from many families happy with Hillcrest, and stories of quality staff. That doesn’t excuse situations like this, or the company’s defensive reaction to a negative story.

Range Development is a booming business that has built 14 Hillcrest assisted living facilities across this aging region in recent years, which charge several thousand dollars a month for care not as rigorously regulated as nursing homes. Fena is very influential in Range business and politics, a major advertiser for Iron Range newspapers and donor to local political campaigns. And it seems that he and Hanna, through editorial judgment, agree that this company would be damaged if people believe the Star Tribune.

That may be. It seems the original Star Tribune story was sensationalized on some details, yet the facts of the matter were not “fabricated.” Even Schroetter and Fena’s version of the story represents an unacceptable level of care for a vulnerable adult who clearly just wants some safety and security. Perhaps the problem is localized, perhaps it is systemic. But something is rotten here and it deserves to be rooted out by better means than this. 


  1. My mother was in assisted living for several years in another state. I will not generalize that what happens in one such place is the same all over. But it is true that many people that we used to think were candidates for a nursing home because of their physical disability because of age or illness now may be in an assisted living facility. Other people may actually be quite independent, except they need their medications supervised, for example. The problem, relative to the story, is that the people do furnish their own rooms and are supposed to have some level of independence. They are supposed to be able to refuse a meal, for example, because they have to be independent decision makers to live there. My mother refused breakfast for several days, as was her choice, but unfortunately, that wasn’t compatible with the morning medications she was taking, so she started having a bad reaction. If she had been in a nursing home, with an RN passing the medications, the nurse quite probably would have realized this incompatibility and intervened sooner.

    Obviously problems could more likely occur if a patient, who is fairly independent when he/she enters the assisted living facility becomes less able to think independently due to health/ age related problems. Then what? At what point does someone make the decision that the person can no longer live there?

    These are complicated issues and they will come up more and more often due to the demographic bump of the baby boomers. In the last 10 or so years, a number of nursing homes in this state were closed. What will happen to the people who might eventually need nursing homes?

    • Vickie LaFreniere says

      I worked at this facility back in 2008. My job was in house keeping. My job was the clean rooms, change & make beds & check each smoke detector to make sure they were working. There was only one resident that would urinate on the floor almost every day & that room was cleaned everyday along with others. The other residents had there rooms cleaned once a week. I know this because it was my job & I did it

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