PHILADELPHIA (AP) — When the cop first laid eyes on Sakinah Robinson last August, he thought she was dead.
Her wrists and ankles were tightly bound to the four corners of a soiled bed. Except for a urine-soaked adult diaper, she was naked.
Sgt. William McNamee saw raw burn marks on her right shoulder, cuts, bruises and burns of varying sizes and shades on her face, chest, abdomen and legs. Her emaciated body was etched with wounds. She lay motionless, her head tilted to the side; her eyes open, but vacant.
The cop moved closer. "Hi," she said, startling him.
"Oh, my God, she's alive!" McNamee told his lieutenant before he cut her free.
Robinson, 37, was the perfect victim.
She couldn't care for herself physically or financially. She was intellectually disabled with limited verbal skills, hidden from neighbors and unable to seek help. A forgotten soul.
She did have "an in-home care aide." That was her cousin, Regina Bennett, 46. A state and federally funded social-services agency, Special People in the Northeast, paid Bennett nearly $24,300 a year - $11.67 an hour after a raise - to help Robinson.
But SPIN saw nothing amiss. It found Bennett's home to be "in good order."
Taxpayers bolstered Bennett's income even more. As the "representative payee," Bennett collected Robinson's Social Security disability income.
But the Social Security Administration, too, saw nothing amiss. It simply took Bennett's word that she was using the money to take good care of her cousin.
In Philadelphia alone, there are more than 73,000 residents with disabilities so severe that they require someone else to manage their annual Social Security benefits — totaling almost $50 million a month, or about $600 million a year, according to the Social Security Administration.
The benefits are supposed to pay for food, shelter and personal necessities. But for those who prey on the helpless, it is a lucrative enterprise that holds little chance of getting caught.
How many Sakinah Robinsons are out there? No one knows.
Experts say the physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of the elderly and disabled is rampant and underreported.
"It's a tsunami," said Joe Snyder, director of older adult protective services at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.
"It's America's dirty little secret."
THE PEOPLE COLLECTORS
Abusers befriend — and in some cases kidnap — the elderly and disabled for their monthly checks and food-stamp allotments.
They treat society's most vulnerable as commodities. They imprison them in squalor, feeding them just enough to keep them alive - so the government subsidies don't dry up.
"Unfortunately, what I'm seeing is that these people are just a paycheck," said Detective Margarita Moreno-Nix, of the police Special Victims Unit, who specializes in this type of abuse and routinely juggles 50 active cases at a time.
In some cases, abusers terrorize their victims, knowing they have nowhere to go. They isolate them and instill fear.
Social Security largely relies on an honor system. Payees like Bennett are supposed to submit yearly accounting reports of how the money is spent, but the agency reviewed less than a quarter of them in fiscal year 2012.
Even when social-service agencies are also being paid with taxpayer dollars to check on the well-being of clients like Robinson, that safety net can fail. Red flags and alarms are either ignored or missed.
After the notorious 2011 "Tacony dungeon case," in which police rescued four abused mentally disabled adults from a grimy sub-basement where Linda Ann Weston had allegedly held them captive, U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Social Security, held hearings on the issue.
He implored the Social Security Administration to "do better" in protecting those it seeks to help.
"As a former prisoner of war, I know enduring torture can quickly mangle your body and slowly destroy your soul. I lived through what could only be called hell on Earth for nearly seven years. Your health and safety is of no interest to your captors," he said.
"It breaks my heart to know the terrors these innocent folks endured here at home," he added, speaking about the Weston case. "While this level of cruelty, from what we know is rare, it is inexcusable and intolerable."
As Johnson addressed the committee that day last June in Washington, Robinson was suffering unspeakable torture 147 miles away in a basement of an Olney home.
A GUT FEELING
Robinson's rescue happened by chance.
The officers were responding to a seemingly run-of-the-mill 9-1-1 call about a dispute between neighbors.
One of the neighbors was Regina Bennett. The officers arrested her, charging her with simple assault and public drunkenness.
Sgt. McNamee and his lieutenant were about a block away from Bennett's house on Linton Street, near N. 3rd, when their gut told them to turn around. Neighbors told the officers that they had occasionally seen a child around the house. The officers went back to make sure a child wasn't left alone.
They began to search room by room. At first glance, the place appeared tidy, ordinary even.
McNamee was in an upstairs bedroom standing over an empty toddler bed when his lieutenant called for help in the basement.
McNamee ran down the steps to find Robinson tied down to a bed with pieces of ragged white cloth. A pink stun gun, tangled with human hairs, was plugged into the wall near the bed. It was charging.
The officers rushed a shaking Robinson to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where a detective later came to see her. Robinson was so traumatized that each time the detective moved in to photograph her wounds, she jerked her arms up to cover her face and head, as if to shield herself from blows.
She didn't speak in sentences. She didn't know her date of birth. She had no concept of time.
Bennett is awaiting trial on a slew of charges including aggravated assault, unlawful restraint/serious bodily injury, neglect of care of a dependent person and false imprisonment.
She has not been charged with any financial crimes associated with Social Security fraud.
A Social Security Administration spokeswoman would not say how much Bennett received on Robinson's behalf, citing privacy laws. But as of November, the average Social Security monthly benefit for Philadelphia residents was almost $700, the spokeswoman said.
During an October preliminary hearing, Bennett's lawyer, Geoffrey Kilroy, argued that someone else, perhaps even Robinson herself, could have caused her injuries.
Bennett became Robinson's guardian in November 2010, appointed by an Orphans' Court judge who deemed Robinson "a totally incapacitated person."
Given that Bennett was also her cousin, she was a logical choice to serve as representative payee.
The Social Security Administration relies heavily on family members to become payees. In fact, 85 percent of the nation's 5.9 million payees are relatives.
Administration officials say they select payees who appear to demonstrate concern for their relative, but it's not always easy to determine whether the concern is genuine.
Up until Robinson's rescue, neither Social Security nor SPIN, the agency that had paid Bennett to care for Robinson since July 2011, thought anything was wrong.
In fact, SPIN described Bennett as practically a model employee who kept a neat home and filed timely reports.
"Miss Bennett supported and trained her cousin to learn and develop adult skills of daily living," according to SPIN president and CEO Kathleen Brown McHale.
A SPIN supervisor visited Bennett's home about four times a year, McHale wrote in an email to the Daily News.
"The home was in good order and the care provided was seen as good," McHale wrote.
Because police discovered Robinson about midnight, McHale made a point of saying, "The incident that occurred regarding Ms. Bennett's arrest happened after the hours of SPIN's service."
"Of course, SPIN is extremely concerned and saddened by this case and is working internally and externally with others to assure something such as this never occurs again," McHale wrote.
SPIN wasn't the only agency that dropped the ball on Robinson's care. PersonLink, funded by the State Department of Public Welfare and a division of the Public Health Management Corp. (PHMC), coordinated a service plan for Robinson. While SPIN carried out the plan, PersonLink was supposed to oversee and monitor it.
A PHMC spokeswoman declined to comment on the case. SPIN fired Bennett a little more than a week after her arrest.
Robinson was placed in a supervised home with 24-hour care. Bennett remains under house arrest.
PREYING ON THE WEAK
For some representative payees, it's not about good will toward the disabled - it's about money.
Take the case of Sandra Choates. Choates met Robin Cullins, a then 49-year-old woman with intellectual disabilities, at a rooming house in 2011. Choates befriended Cullins and promised her a nice place to live if she named Choates as her payee.
Choates became payee for Cullins in August 2011. As payee, Choates, now 58, had unfettered access to Social Security money direct-deposited into a bank account for Cullins.
Yet there was no cozy home awaiting Cullins.
Instead, Choates conned an elderly acquaintance, Daisy Irby, into taking in Cullins. In return, Choates offered to pay Irby $300 a month. So Cullins moved in with Irby at a house on Nedro Street, near Conlyn, in the city's Fern Rock neighborhood.
Problem was, Irby, now 76, could barely take care of herself. The house was filthy and infested with maggots, roaches and rats.
The $300 a month that Choates promised Irby never materialized. Nor did money for Cullins' care, according to police.
It didn't take long for living conditions to further deteriorate. The two women, Cullins and Irby, did not have enough to eat. There was no electricity, heat or running water, according to police and a witness in the case.
Whenever Irby asked for money, Choates yelled that she was "not giving her a f---ing thing; she did not give a damn what happened to her," according to police documents.
Meanwhile, Choates blew thousands of dollars at casinos, bought a $300 Coach designer bag and treated herself to a $195 salon visit, according to January 2013 police documents.
In one year, Choates stole $7,659 of Cullins's Social Security benefits, spending at least $5,400 at casinos, including an $840 spree at the swank Borgata in Atlantic City in June 2012, according to the affidavit of probable cause for Choates' arrest.
Had the Social Security Administration asked for Choates' financial history before accepting her as Cullins' payee, it would have found that she had serious money problems. She filed for bankruptcy in 1997, filed again the following year and again in 2004.
At least four landlords had taken Choates to court for nonpayment and in one case claimed she owed more than $15,000 for not paying $2,600 in rent and causing $12,000 in property damage. She was evicted from two properties, according to court records.
"While we verify a payee applicant's current income, we do not obtain information about his or her financial history . . . Past financial difficulty should not automatically exclude a payee applicant from consideration," Social Security spokeswoman Terri Lewis wrote in an email to the Daily News.
Lewis would not comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality, but according to police paperwork, Choates was able to become payee not just for Cullins, but for two other adults with mental disabilities.
When Irby's daughter, Darlene Irby, discovered how her mother was living, she implored her to leave. She refused.
"My mom was incapable of making her own decisions. (Choates) manipulated my mother," Darlene Irby said in a recent interview. "My mom feared her."
Unable to convince her mother to come with her, Darlene Irby dropped off food for her mother and Cullins. She did so daily because without power, they had no working refrigerator, Darlene Irby said.
Increasingly frustrated, Darlene Irby said she began to "harass" the mayor's office, the District Attorney's Office and police about the conditions at the house. At each place, employees told her to file a complaint. She did. Nothing happened. (A police spokesman said the Special Victims Unit has no record of a complaint.)
At one point, Darlene Irby said, she counted six people, including her mother and Cullins - all elderly or disabled - living at the Nedro Street house.
"I made four calls to the Social Security office," Irby said. "They recommended I speak to the police. I told them, 'Listen. I'm doing you a favor. The Social Security representative payee is not taking care of these people. I'm trying to help these people . . . ' They told me if I didn't know their Social Security numbers, there was nothing they could do."
Finally, Darlene Irby went to the offices of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, this time screaming, insistent that she would not take no for an answer.
"I need one person to hear me," she recalled bellowing.
After an agency investigator visited the house, he reported the "deplorable" conditions to police Detective Moreno-Nix, of the Special Victims Unit, who removed Irby and Cullins in August 2012, then arrested Choates.
"Choates intentionally deprived (Cullins) of food, money and basic necessities by stealing her money, and using the funds for herself," Moreno-Nix wrote in the arrest warrant.
Even after Cullins was taken to a shelter, Choates continued to withdraw money from her account, leaving just 50 cents by Sept. 1, 2012, according to authorities.
Choates faces several charges of theft and neglect of a care-dependent person.
At a recent court hearing, Choates sat in court with a leopard-print scarf covering her head and face, so her eyes were barely visible. She would not talk or even make eye contact with a reporter who asked for comment.
Donald Chisholm, Choates' lawyer, said it's all a misunderstanding.
"This is a tragedy for (Choates)," Chisholm said. "Nothing like this has happened to her before ever. She was doing nothing wrong. It was an overdramatization. She wasn't doing anything illegal.
"She was just a caretaker."
THE FRANCES LOWRY CASE
Like millions of Americans, retiree Frances Lowry of Kensington was dependent on Social Security.
Each month, Lowry collected a $145.96 private pension and $786 in Social Security benefits.
She'd worked all her life tending to sick people and took in dozens of foster children.
But at 69, she was isolated and vulnerable. Her husband had died, and she was blind and suffering from diabetes and heart problems. Yet she shuddered at the thought of a nursing home.
So she turned to the state's so-called "aging waiver program," in which Medicaid payments allotted for nursing-home care can be put toward in-home services. Under the program, funded through the state Department of Public Welfare and administered by the Department of Aging, Lowry could handpick a caregiver.
That's when Lowry's nephew, Robert Thomas, and his girlfriend, Brigeitte Battle, smelled opportunity. They offered to care for Lowry at their Kensington home. Lowry felt comfortable with the arrangement. She'd helped raise Thomas as a kid.
Battle became Lowry's in-home aide, a job that paid an hourly wage of $10.50 weekdays and $11.50 on weekends. Lowry gave Thomas permission, along with her debit card, to withdraw money from her bank account to pay for food and necessities. She also agreed to pay for phone, cable and Internet services. In a sense, Thomas became Lowry's off-the-books representative payee.
In November 2011, when Lowry moved in with Thomas, then 28, and Battle, 23, she was fragile, but still able to walk.
Over the next eight months, Thomas and Battle left Lowry to rot in a bed in the living room of their home on Somerset near Kensington. A filthy sheet covered her naked body. She gradually succumbed to atrophy and eventually lost the use of her legs while Thomas and Battle drained her bank account. They stole nearly $7,500, splurging on restaurants, clubs, movies and clothes.
They left her for days without food or water. Hordes of roaches crawled around a dirty water basin and nested in Lowry's shoes, according to police documents.
Without sight, Lowry's other senses were heightened. She felt roaches scurry across her body. When she lowered herself onto the commode by her bed, she recoiled as a sludge of feces and urine trickled down her thin legs, she recounted in a recent interview with the Daily News.
As summertime temperatures soared above 100 degrees, Lowry struggled to breathe while she listened to the hum of an air-conditioning unit cooling a bedroom shared by Thomas and Battle. From her bed, she listened to the cackling couple return home with savory takeout.
"I could hear and smell them walk by with food — sandwiches and stuff," Lowry said. "I could hear the bags and them giggling. Yet they walked past me and wouldn't give me nothing."
When Lowry complained, Thomas threatened to put her out on the street. She grew fearful. Thomas and Battle did not allow visitors and limited her phone access, according to the arrest warrant and Lowry.
Under the state's "aging waiver program," a local social worker was assigned to check up on Lowry and help coordinate any health and welfare services she needed.
That worker, Chandra Thompson, an employee of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, either did not make the required home visits — or did and chose to do nothing.
Lowry said that Thompson visited her just once.
"She called me on the phone every couple of months — maybe three times," Lowry said. "If she was coming out like she was supposed to, I wouldn't have been in that dirty house with roaches and rats and feces with no clothes."
When Thompson reached Lowry by phone early on, Lowry said her blindness prevented her from realizing that she was living in filth. Later, Lowry grew too afraid to tell Thompson anything because her nephew and his girlfriend were within earshot, according to Lowry and Detective Moreno-Nix.
Thompson referred a call from the Daily News to a PCA spokeswoman, Linda Riley, who declined to discuss the case, citing privacy laws.
At the time, PCA expected Thompson and its other so-called "service coordinators" to visit clients "on an as-needed basis - an average of once a month to once every six weeks," according to Holly Lange, the agency's president and CEO, speaking generally. "The service coordinator could go as many times as we determined to help that person."
Through PCA, a driver was supposed to deliver a hot meal to Lowry once a day.
Lowry's neighbor, Attiya Ross, said she once saw a meal-delivery woman emerge from the house shaking her head. She told Ross that she was appalled at Lowry's living conditions but she "didn't want to start trouble."
Ross, 32, started to bring food to Lowry. Then one afternoon in late July 2012, Ross and a family friend, who had come over to check on Lowry, called police. When officers arrived, they could smell a stench from the sidewalk. Once inside, they stomped on the floor to shake off cockroaches that crawled up their pants.
In May, Battle and Thomas pleaded guilty to theft, neglect of care/dependent person and reckless endangerment. A judge sentenced them to five years' probation and ordered them each to pay Lowry about $3,730 in restitution. The judge barred them from working in the dependent-care industry.
Battle told the Daily News that she took great care of Lowry. "I was nice to her and let her in my house," she said. "I don't care nothing about her. She created dramas."
Lowry, now 71, has lived with Ross since July 2012 when she was rescued.
In October, Lowry finally received her first restitution check. The amount: $12.50 - a little more than the hourly rate that Battle earned to care for her.
Information from: The Philadelphia Daily News, http://www.phillydailynews.com/