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His Overdose Death in a Halfway House Bathroom Illustrates a System Lacking Accountability

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.

The last time Iris Román Prieto saw her son, he was leaving their family Christmas Eve party to report back at the Colorado Springs halfway house where he was completing a two-year sentence for burglary.

After arriving at the facility, Robert Román Prieto called to let his mom know that he was safe.

And he then dialed his fiancée, Jasmin Black, who had dropped him off. After 15 minutes, at around 11 p.m., Black heard through the phone a grunt, a thud and then silence.

Alarmed, she called the facility, which is run by ComCor Inc., and pleaded with a staff member to check on Román Prieto, according to a police report.

He was in his bed asleep, the staffer assured her before hanging up.

The lifeless body of Román Prieto, 30, was found around 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 25, 2021, facedown on the bathroom floor, still holding his phone, according to the police report. Nearly five hours had passed since Black’s call asking staff to check on him. Staff told police that the last head count had occurred at midnight, and Román Prieto was not accounted for.

Law enforcement found half a blue pill, later identified as fentanyl, in Román Prieto’s wallet. Security footage showed he had purchased the potent synthetic opioid from two facility residents in the parking lot after exiting Black’s car.

Had ComCor staff followed state standards and the company’s own policies, they would have monitored security cameras trained on the parking lot, searched Román Prieto for contraband, and conducted a head count every two hours, which includes a visual check of each resident.

“If that person had checked on Robert when they said that they would, if that would have been taken care of right away, he would still be alive,” said his mother.

Román Prieto’s overdose death was the third fatality involving substance use at the facility in the span of eight months, according to coroner reports obtained by ProPublica.

His family believes he was seeking the pain reliever oxycodone, which illicit fentanyl is often made to look like. The day before, he had strained his back moving bags of concrete at the family’s new restaurant, according to his family.

Joselymar Román shows a hat she had custom made to memorialize her brother Román Prieto, who often wore a Boston Red Sox snapback.

Mark Wester, the executive director of ComCor, said in a written statement that staff followed all protocols and that an investigation three months later by county employees found no deficiencies in the facility's response. Wester denied ProPublica’s request to review the county investigation. A public records request to El Paso County found no documentation of such an investigation.

State auditors in 2017 noted that the facility wasn’t following procedures, writing that the cameras were “unviewed,” that staff wasn’t verifying clients’ physical presence, and that “pat searches” to control contraband when entering the building did not meet state standards. Two years later, auditors reiterated the need for staff to confirm the presence of each client during head counts, particularly when “the client is sleeping or in the bathroom.” A plan was implemented in 2019 that addressed the auditors’ concerns, according to Wester.

For years, ComCor and many other halfway house operators in Colorado’s community corrections system have been cited by the state Office of Community Corrections for failing to comply with security standards, which can lead to dangerous consequences. Audits, staff incident reports and internal documents reviewed by ProPublica revealed that the facilities have been host to sexual assaults, frequent escapes, recurring drug use and overdose deaths.

Yet regulators rarely use their authority or financial leverage to force facilities to improve their safety practices.

The problems persist, in part, because although the Office of Community Corrections oversees the system, 22 local community corrections boards also regulate what happens inside individual facilities. ProPublica found that most of the local boards — which are staffed by elected officials, parole officers, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges — work in tandem with halfway house operators, often looking past violations and failing to follow up when audits identify problems. Many boards haven’t audited the facilities they oversee in five years, or ever, meaning operators make millions of dollars from state contracts with minimal oversight.

Two days after Román Prieto’s death, when the El Paso County community corrections administrator reported it to the state, the administrator didn’t mention that ComCor had failed to monitor its facility and residents and instead characterized the facility’s response as “very good,” according to an email obtained by ProPublica. Román Prieto had received three doses of Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, the administrator, Angel Medina, said.

A toxicology screen ordered by the El Paso County coroner and obtained by ProPublica found no naloxone, the medication in Narcan, in Román Prieto’s system.

ComCor Inc.’s halfway house in Colorado Springs

El Paso County referred ProPublica to ComCor for comment, saying the company is responsible for “all day-to-day operations.”

Medina, who left his position in April, declined an interview request and wouldn’t comment on the case, but said in a written statement that the board's first commitment is to public safety. “The staff and Community Corrections Board strive to ensure the providers work toward the highest standards set by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. This is accomplished by a genuine and sincere commitment to transparency and accountability,” he said in the statement.

The lack of oversight and accountability in Colorado’s halfway houses contributes to a system in which people who pass through the facilities — whether they’re transitioning out of prison or sentenced directly to community corrections by a judge — are more likely to end up incarcerated than rehabilitated. Of those who enroll in a Colorado halfway house, only 35% will successfully complete a program and stay out of the criminal justice system for at least two years, according to state data.

ProPublica reported earlier this year that overly punitive policies, a scarcity of employment training, a lack of effective drug treatment programs, financial costs that sink residents into debt, and a system void of transparency and oversight also contribute to the system’s failures.

“Of all of the stages in the criminal law system … I think this is probably one of the most opaque,” said Wendy Sawyer, research director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank based in Massachusetts. “There’s just a sort of [a] black hole.”

Inadequate Audits

Colorado’s halfway house system was established in 1974 to address prison overcrowding and provide addiction treatment, job training and other services to those leaving prison or avoiding incarceration through alternative sentencing programs. But the state has rarely evaluated whether it’s working.

It’s been more than 20 years since the halfway house system was independently audited. A 2001 review by the Office of the State Auditor, an independent agency within the Colorado legislative branch, found many problems, including “low levels of compliance” with state standards among halfway house operators and little enforcement of standards by state or local regulators. Out-of-compliance facilities still received contracts over and over, according to the assessment.

Auditors also found that it was impossible to determine how the 22 local community corrections boards, which contract with halfway house providers using state money, spend their administrative funds. “Few boards actually provide any type of systematic program oversight,” they wrote.

A photograph of Román Prieto and an urn containing his ashes, at right, are displayed on the mantel with other items memorializing him above two of his daughters, Naddia Román, 7, and Mariela Román, 8.

Steve Allen, who worked for 17 years as a legislative budget analyst, said he tried for years but failed to get more information about facilities from the state’s Office of Community Corrections. “I never had a clear picture” of how facilities were using state funding, he said. “I did the best I could, but things really never changed.”

The auditors recommended that the local boards should no longer be involved in routine administrative functions such as billing and administering contracts, and that reporting requirements be established.

In response, the state agreed to require “measurable performance expectations” in contracts. But 20 years passed before the metrics to do that were established, in 2021. Facilities now get additional funding if enough people graduate from a halfway house program and if recidivism rates are kept low enough, but they aren’t penalized if they don’t hit those marks.

In 2023, community corrections facilities will be eligible for even more state funding as part of a “pay-for-success” model that state regulators hope will improve the abysmally low success rates. Every three years, each facility will receive two new assessments: the PACE — which measures program quality, including whether rehabilitation programs are backed by research — and the CORE, which looks at facilities’ security practices.

These new audits, however, will evaluate fewer than half of the nearly 100 state standards for the facilities and rely on the same state and local oversight practices that have consistently failed to hold accountable poorly performing halfway house providers.

The OCC conducted the new assessments at every facility between 2017 and 2021, but it didn’t identify plans for improvement, something it says it will start doing next year.

Greg Fugate, director of communications and quality assurance for the Colorado Office of the State Auditor, said the state hasn’t conducted another independent audit of the system because the law doesn’t require it and the office hasn’t received a request to do so. But the governor or any lawmaker could request one, and the state auditor could initiate one at the office’s discretion.

The Office of Community Corrections is required to review facilities’ compliance with state standards every five years, but the law doesn’t specify how extensive the inspections need to be or what happens when problems are found. The office also conducts some audits for specific treatment programs and monitors certain standards through its billing system, including background checks and fingerprinting requirements for new hires, according to Katie Ruske, manager of Colorado’s Office of Community Corrections, which is part of the Division of Criminal Justice. But since 2017 the office has conducted only “limited” audits of eight halfway houses focusing only on security practices. Colorado has 27 state-funded halfway houses.

ProPublica obtained audits conducted by the OCC since 2017 through public records requests. They show many facilities frequently do not comply with state standards for security and program quality, and the homes rarely face serious consequences for those failures.

A 2017 Office of Community Corrections audit of ComCor found that security was “inadequate to effectively monitor the facility, client movement and general activities.” (OCC audit obtained and annotated by ProPublica) The audit describes inadequate head-count practices to verify residents’ presence in the halfway house. (OCC audit obtained and annotated by ProPublica) “Significant issues” were found with pat searches, “leading to insufficient contraband control.” (OCC audit obtained and annotated by ProPublica)

Some facilities lacked documentation for disciplinary actions and resident escapes, and sometimes didn’t report sexual assault allegations. Facilities failed to adequately train staff, monitor clients and prevent drugs from entering the halfway house, auditors wrote.

Where state auditing falls short, local community corrections boards are supposed to fill the gaps, according to Ruske. “They need to do their own auditing so that there is more time inside of those programs and facilities, more oversight than just what our office can provide,” said Ruske.

“The statutes and our contracts still make it very clear that we can hold subcontractors accountable if we need to,” she said. “And we have done that in our history … to the point of program closure. That hasn't been during my tenure, but that has happened in the past.”

In 2016, Colorado lawmakers provided additional funding to improve employee training, retention and recruitment at halfway houses — $134,000 for smaller facilities and $269,000 for larger facilities. But they are not required to report how that money is used and the state doesn’t audit whether it goes to the intended purpose.

Christopher Bonham, who worked in security at ComCor, said he received two days of training when he was hired in 2016. It didn’t prepare him for dealing with residents who struggled with substance abuse, he said.

Bonham said more staffing and better training might have prevented an overdose death he witnessed in 2016. It was the night shift, and he had been dealing with an “onslaught of guys needing pat-downs, Breathalyzers, everything.” A few hours had passed since he last patrolled the facility, he said.

“When you’ve got 120, 130 guys walking around and there’s only two of you on shift, it’s like a human tsunami,” said Bonham, who worked for the organization on and off for five years. “That’s what it’s like at a lot of these places. They try to go with the absolute minimum staffing.”

A minimum of two staff members work the night shift in each security office, according to Wester, ComCor’s executive director. The company has two facilities with a total of three security offices.

The other staff member on duty yelled for Bonham to go to Room 7, he said, where a 26-year-old resident enrolled in the treatment program for serious addictions was unconscious. Bonham and his colleague tried to resuscitate the man before paramedics arrived, Bonham said. The next day, Bonham said, the hospital told him the man had been taken off life support. A coroner’s report indicates he died of an overdose of methamphetamine and heroin.

Christopher Bonham, who worked security at ComCor, at a park in Colorado Springs

Bonham and others brought concerns about staffing levels and training to management many times, he said. The response was always the same: They’d look into it. The facility began stocking Narcan, he said. But little else changed.

After two more overdose deaths and more pleas to upper management to improve training and staffing that went unheeded, according to Bonham, he left the organization in November 2021. Román Prieto’s overdose death occurred a month later.

Wester said in response to a 2021 state audit that the facility has been “redeveloping” its new employee orientation to include a week of classroom training and time shadowing more-experienced employees.

But he acknowledged to ProPublica there have been times when that wasn’t the case. “A year ago, we were down 25 staff,” he said in June. “So we were trying to do rapid hiring and so for a time, we did shorten the orientation. It wasn’t the best circumstance.”

Preparing to Be Audited

Some who’ve worked in the system say auditing doesn’t provide a true reflection of what happens inside the facilities.

When auditors arrived at ComCor Inc. in July 2021 to conduct a PACE audit of its rehabilitation programs, Broderick Rimes, a security manager, felt like a student who had all the answers to the exam he was about to take. The auditors from Colorado’s Office of Community Corrections had provided an outline of what to expect and given the facility two months to prepare.

Rimes, a former investigator for the military, said his bosses gave him funds to “beautify” the rundown motel-turned-correctional-facility. He instructed residents to plant flowers and build new outdoor staff seating, and he rewarded their free labor with a barbecue. He had new fans installed, which hushed residents’ complaints about the heat.

Weeks earlier, the facility had been understaffed, according to Rimes.

Audits in 2017 and 2019 noted an “alarming rate of employee turnover,” along with other staff-related problems, such as disciplinary practices that did not follow fairness and due process requirements and a failure to control contraband entering the facility.

The day of the 2021 audit, Rimes’ “best and brightest” staffers were working. Many had received pay increases so they’d have “happy faces” for the visitors, according to Rimes.

Under the direction of his supervisors, Rimes had recruited residents to join a new “mentorship program,” which would be showcased during the audit. Those who agreed to participate received perks: bigger rooms, air conditioners, extra attention from staff and the promise of new gym equipment. This ensured the clients had positive things to say about the program, Rimes said.

Auditors gave ComCor one of the highest scores in the state.

According to Wester, the facility received similarly high marks from local regulators, including Medina, the El Paso County community corrections administrator.

“Mr. Medina was able to only see what we allowed him to see,” Rimes said.

Broderick Rimes, a former security manager at ComCor, at his home

Rimes said he felt like he was deceiving the auditors, but believed that the potential boost in state funding from a good audit would improve conditions at the facility.

But as soon as the auditors left, things went back to the way they were before, he said.

Upper management halted the mentorship program, saying it was never formally approved. The mentors were moved out of their improved rooms. The AC units and fans were returned on the grounds that they were “violating fire code.” Rimes said he was scolded for letting residents perform maintenance tasks such as installing fans and outdoor seating without being paid.

Rimes said it was clear that he’d been manipulated too.

He had to tell residents that they weren’t getting the promised gym equipment.

“I couldn’t look those clients in the face,” said Rimes. “What am I going to tell them? That we lied to them?”

ComCor’s Wester told ProPublica that the facility had ample time to prepare for the audit because it had been delayed due to the pandemic. The audit was originally scheduled for March 2020.

He also stressed that the purpose was not to catch facilities by surprise. The requirements “are not a secret,” said Wester, who is also the chairperson of the Colorado Community Corrections Coalition, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of halfway house operators. “We are always improving our environment, our management and our services.”

Wester called Rimes’ mentorship program “fledgling” and said it was replaced by a more robust one. The pay increases staff received were not related to the state evaluation, he said. Wester said he was aware of the other changes Rimes made but they weren’t done for the audit and were instead part of a broader effort to improve the facility.

A month later, Rimes resigned.

“It sucks because I live in this community, so it’s not like I don’t see these clients,” he said in June. “I know the bad stuff that I participated in.”

Local Boards Rarely Step In

Colorado’s halfway house system was designed like many other state programs — giving local governments as much control as possible. That led to the creation of community corrections boards in each of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts. The boards operate independently, and state statutes are silent on who can sit on those boards and for how long.

The boards are directed to ensure that facilities are complying with state standards, but many have never audited the facilities they oversee. Twelve boards are required by the OCC to conduct their own audits, according to their annual reports, but only six have consistently done so since 2017, according to audits obtained by ProPublica.

The boards vary drastically in their makeup, protocols and oversight.

They distribute state money and have the authority to accept or deny people’s enrollment in halfway house programs, essentially operating as an unofficial court overwhelmingly staffed by law enforcement and other members of the criminal justice system.

Across the road from the ComCor halfway house. State standards and the company’s own policies call for security cameras trained on the parking lot to be monitored.

Allen, the former legislative budget analyst, attended a handful of their meetings. He recalled a man who took a plea deal from a district attorney so he could go to community corrections instead of prison. The board denied the man’s application.

“Who voted against it? The representative from the DA’s office,” he said. “I’m sorry, there is something wrong with that system.”

Advocates say transparency is necessary because boards could cherry-pick applicants who would improve their facility’s success rate, a metric now used to financially reward facilities.

A 2018 law requires each board to use an evidence-based decision-making tool to avoid discrimination in such decisions. But boards are allowed to design their own tools without state input. Some refuse people who receive alternative sentences for violent crimes, people from other judicial districts who have been convicted of a sex crime, and people who have been arrested for selling drugs.

Despite funding these boards, the Office of Community Corrections gathers little information about their activities apart from an annual report, leaving state lawmakers who approve their funding in the dark about halfway houses’ operations. Facilities are required to report how many people escape each year –– there have been 936 so far this year, according to state data –– and how much rent each facility collects from residents. During the 2020 fiscal year, facilities collected approximately $15 million in rent, according to the Office of Community Corrections’ annual report.

The community board for Alamosa County does not publish information online about when or where it meets or who its board members are. Colorado’s open meetings law requires that meeting notices be posted “in a formally designated public place at least 24 hours before a meeting.”

“We don’t post our information because there’s some privacy issues. We never have,” said Patrick Stanford, who has been the community corrections coordinator for Alamosa County for more than 20 years.

Through public records requests, ProPublica obtained information on the board’s membership, which consists of four current and former district and county judges; one court executive; two parole and probation officers; a public defender; the district attorney; a sheriff; a police chief; two former or current county commissioners; the mayor; and a local mental health provider.

In response to a follow-up question from ProPublica, Stanford said that he has sent the meeting information to be posted in the Alamosa County Courthouse but he could not verify that it was posted.

Steve Zansberg, a Denver-based lawyer and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said that while posting in the courthouse would technically be in compliance with the law, “it is certainly not in compliance with its spirit.”

The local board for Alamosa or the county government has not conducted its own audit of the halfway house it oversees since at least 2017, despite being directed to do so by the OCC, according to public records.

A 2019 state audit of Advantage Treatment Center in Alamosa detailed practices that did not comply with state law, according to the report, including how often residents were monitored when they left the facility, processes for substance use testing, how client medications were handled, how escapes were documented and the levels of staffing that were maintained.

The report found that the facility was in full compliance with only two state standards. But neither the state, the local board nor the facility operator required corrective action, according to Stanford.

Joshua Mayhugh, the vice president for Advantage Treatment Centers, said in a written statement that steps were taken internally to correct the noncompliance, including “technical training,” but did not provide details.

It wasn’t the first time the state had taken issue with Alamosa County’s halfway house. The previous operator, San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group, is among the few to ever have a contract canceled by the state for egregious violations of state standards, including falsifying documents and failing to hire qualified treatment staff, according to Ruske and public records. Less than a year later, the provider decided to close the facility, according to Kylee Sowards, San Luis Valley’s marketing and communications specialist. She said in an email that no one employed at the time of the closure currently works for the company.

Following the 2019 audit, Stanford said he met with the local board and the facility to discuss the audit, but he couldn’t point to anything that had been done to address the concerns beyond installing more security cameras. There has not been a follow-up audit.

“We have a pretty good track record, and I’m not just saying that. I think if you look around the state, Advantage Treatment Center has a good track record,” he said. “Not perfect, no one’s perfect.”

“I think most of the board members … feel pretty good about how things are going,” Stanford added.

“If They Had Searched Him, He’d Be Alive Today”

Román shows a necklace charm given to her by her brother Román Prieto. “He wanted to be better, and they took away that opportunity,” she said.

Román Prieto’s family was never notified of his death by ComCor.

Black learned of her fiancé’s death from his roommate, who called her that Christmas morning. She then called Román Prieto’s sister, who was wrapping presents when the phone rang.

“He was so full of life,” Naddia Román said. “He was doing really, really good. He was more around his kids, more around his family. He wanted to be better, and they took away that opportunity.”

Román Prieto’s stepfather, Ivan Rios, emailed the facility in late December asking for more information and security footage. He never got a response.

“If they had searched him, he’d be alive today,” Rios said. “He was a victim of ComCor.”

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Opinion: Why is it still legal to rape your spouse in Maryland?

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By Chris Apple

The writer is a volunteer advocate.

Sexual assault should be illegal, and marriage should be no defense — it’s an ideal the U.S. has been working toward since the 1970s, when states began outlawing marital rape. In Maryland, loopholes still exist that let people get away with assaulting their spouses. Fortunately, efforts to close those loopholes are intensifying.

In the February Zoom hearing about this proposed repeal, faces were somber. Advocates talked about the gruesome ways people have found to exploit these loopholes. Under current Maryland state law, marriage is a total defense to fourth-degree sexual assault — even if the spouse is injured in their intimate areas, even if the contact is abusive, even if the married couple are living apart in a trial separation.

More extreme assault, including rape, is permitted if the spouse is incapacitated. Advocates went into painful detail about cases where spouses were unconscious, sometimes drugged. To be considered sexual assault, the assailant must use or threaten force, or the victim must explicitly withdraw consent. But under Maryland law, an incapacitated person has not withdrawn consent, and the assault does not meet the legal definition of force because the victim was unconscious.

All of these are real cases shared by state’s attorneys who tried to prosecute these crimes, only to find that the perpetrators hadn’t done anything illegal. Those survivors, likely facing ridicule and threats for going public, did not get the justice they deserved.

But they would have gotten that justice if they were unmarried. Only the laws for married people have these loopholes. If those survivors hadn’t been married, if it was an intimate partner who did these things to them, it would have met the definition of sexual assault. The exact same acts, perpetrated between unmarried persons, are crimes in Maryland.

The effort to repeal these loopholes has been going on for several years. At its core is the value we place on consent and a repudiation of the notion that marriage itself grants that consent. In the time before the founding of the U.S., the law held that men assumed control over the legal rights of their wives. “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife,” wrote English judge Sir Matthew Hale, “for by their mutual consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

These laws formed the basis for our legal system. But more recently, we as a society have spent decades fighting marital rape laws, fighting for the ideal that married people have the same right to bodily autonomy as everybody else. By repealing these loopholes, Maryland can get closer to that ideal.

The 2022 repeal attempt ultimately failed. It has now failed four years in a row, often because amendments were added to the bill that weakened the protections it hoped to provide. Advocates have pledged to return and fight again in 2023. And now, a grass-roots petition has begun circulating, demanding an immediate repeal to these loopholes. 

On the streets, people express shock and disgust when they learn about this law. “We’re one of those states?” exclaimed one petition signer. And as circulators went door-to-door, signers began to share their own stories: repeated assaults by intimate partners, family members, neighbors. Assaults in the dead of night, while the victim was exhausted and delirious. Some of these stories echoed those shared by the state’s attorneys, hinting at the plain truth that marital assaults are much more common than what we see in that hearing room. As many as two-thirds of sexual assaults are never reported.

The petition’s circulators aim to collect as many signatures as possible, and will deliver it to Maryland lawmakers in advance of the 2023 repeal hearing for this law. Maryland voters can read and sign the petition at mdspousal.com.

Marriage does not change how consent works. A wife is not the physical property of her husband, and married people need the same sexual assault protections as everybody else. Current Maryland law takes away a spouse’s right to consent — it mandates their consent, whether they’re actually willing or not. It’s time to finally change that.

The post Opinion: Why is it still legal to rape your spouse in Maryland? appeared first on Maryland Matters.

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Real Estate Investors Sold Somali Families on a Fast Track to Homeownership in Minnesota. The Buyers Risk Losing Everything.

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.

This story was produced in collaboration with Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for Sahan’s free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.

For many Somali families in Minnesota, the barriers to home ownership have long seemed insurmountable: reluctant lenders, low incomes, short work histories, little credit.

Members of the East African Muslim community encounter an additional, unique challenge: Because of the principles of their faith, many avoid paying or profiting from interest. This means they typically won’t apply for traditional mortgages. As a result, the conventional path to buying a house — and the accompanying hope of building generational wealth — has been nearly impossible.

Roughly three years ago, a handful of lending firms began offering an “interest free” way to buy a home. Word spread fast in Minnesota’s Somali community, which numbers about 80,000 people. Families began moving out of their cramped apartments and government-subsidized housing and into homes in the suburbs with expansive lawns and enough bedrooms for their large, multigenerational families.

The seeming solution came in the form of a short document with three boldfaced words at the top: “Contract For Deed.” An alternative way to purchase a house, a contract for deed is, at its simplest, a financial agreement in which a buyer pays the seller directly in installments. No mortgage. No bank.

But seller financing, as it is also known, lacks key protections for the buyer. Until the final payment is made, the seller holds the ownership papers to the property, and the contract can be canceled by the seller if the buyer falls behind on their monthly payments. If that happens, the buyer forfeits all the money they’ve put into the purchase, including the down payment. The seller could then evict the buyer after as little as 60 days.

Many buyers mistakenly believe if they make the monthly payment stipulated in their contracts, they will successfully pay off the home by the end of the contract term. But those payments may only add up to a portion of the price of the home, and the buyer is expected to make up the difference with a lump-sum payment, known as a balloon, or by refinancing the loan. The lenders almost have an incentive for contracts to fail. They get the home and pocket the payments.

To prospective Somali buyers desperate for extra space, safer neighborhoods with better schools and the chance to pass a home on to their children, any deal was better than no deal.

One of those buyers was a long-haul truck driver who for years had rented an apartment in a Minneapolis suburb. The apartment was too small for his wife and their growing family; their children had to double and triple up in the bedrooms. Buying a house had always been the couple’s goal, but the husband believed his credit score was too low.

Still, he couldn’t help himself from perusing listings on real-estate websites and attending the occasional open house. One day, he took two of his children with him.

“‘Hey, Dad, this house has more bedrooms. This house has a playground.’ They’ve never seen their own yard,” said the trucker, who spoke to ProPublica and Sahan Journal on the condition he not be named. “They were really excited. That’s when I say: ‘OK, I can do it. If my kids are happy like this, I can do it.’”

The trucker, a quiet, nattily dressed man in his mid-30s, contacted a friend who recently had bought a house and asked how he did it. The answer: a contract for deed. Following the same steps as his friend, this summer the trucker purchased a spacious home in an outer-ring suburb south of Minneapolis.

But just two months later, he said, the contract had already become unmanageable. His family is at risk of losing not only the house, but about $100,000 they have paid, including a hefty down payment. He said he never understood the disadvantages and quirks of the contract for deed.

Now, it’s too late to get out of it.

“It’s really scary,” he said. “To be honest, you’re sleeping right there and you can’t think of it as if it’s your house.”

(Imran Hussein, special to ProPublica)

Fartun Weli, the CEO of Isuroon, a nonprofit that advocates for Somali women and girls, said her housing team has been trying to gauge the scope of the problem in the Twin Cities, where affordable housing is scarce.

She estimates at least 100 Somali families had purchased homes with contracts for deed but believes there could be many more. Last year, more than 1,800 contracts for deed were signed in Minnesota’s 11 most populous counties — all of which have more than 100,000 residents and which include Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as cities such as St. Cloud, Rochester and Duluth. (Neither the state nor counties track these sales by race or ethnicity.)

Many of those contracts were for newly constructed, multibedroom homes that sold in the mid to high six figures; some sold for close to $1 million. According to the contracts, buyers could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if they default, as well as the house itself.

Sahan Journal and ProPublica spoke to five Somali homebuyers who said they signed contracts they did not understand, though none would agree to be identified. Weli said she is alarmed that so many Somali families are entering into precarious real estate transactions believing they have found a “shortcut” to homeownership.

“It’s so delicious, the bait. Well, you don’t really know when you swallow there’s a sourness, a small piece of cyanide that’s getting to you,” Weli said. “Contract for deed is really an amazing trap for our community.”

There is nothing illegal about contract-for-deed agreements. Defenders say they offer an alternate path to home ownership for people whose financial circumstances don’t fit the standards set by conventional mortgage lenders.

“There are buyers out there who don’t necessarily have pristine credit. That’s the purpose of a contract for deed,” said Larry Wertheim, a real estate attorney in Minneapolis who has worked with these kinds of agreements for decades. “They do serve a purpose. But, you know, they can be abused, too.”

But Wertheim and other housing advocates say the market needs stronger consumer protections.

In the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, the number of contract-for-deed agreements spiked, sparking a wave of defaults.

“Most of those contracts for deed were designed to fail,” said Luke Grundman, litigation director at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “They may have sunk tens of thousands of dollars into the down payment and monthly payments. And then it’s not just the actual money but the false hope of homeownership.”

Since 2012, the number of contracts in Minnesota’s 11 most populous counties declined, from a high of about 2,500 that year to a low of about 1,500 in 2020. But that downward trend ended last year. As the number of contracts has rebounded, a growing market has emerged: Somali homebuyers seeking interest-free financing.

“Don’t you want your own property ... a house your whole family can fit in?” says the website for C4D LLC, one of the largest contract-for-deed providers in Minnesota and whose site is in Somali and English. “Buying a house in the States normally asks you to pay interest. Or to have a good credit score. But you don’t have to if you choose a contract-for-deed agreement.”

Steven Legatt, a partner at C4D, said his business grew out of an existing market for car loans serving the Somali community. His company offers both interest-free and conventional contracts for deed, and he described his customer base as mostly Somali, including first-time homebuyers.

“They’re generally large families, and a lot of them are bumping their heads in their rentals,” Legatt said. “They wanted to put their money towards purchasing a house, not just renting.”

The company purchases homes using mortgages from a conventional lender. Then, it sells the houses — often on the same day and at a higher price — to buyers through a contract for deed. It is one of several companies that Sahan Journal and ProPublica identified that flip homes in this way.

Jeff Scislow is a real estate agent who began advertising his contract-for-deed services on a Facebook page called “My Somali Home,” since renamed “My Interest Free Home.” While Scislow said he screens potential buyers and writes contracts with clear payment schedules, he knows other sellers don’t.

He called the market in the Twin Cities “the Wild West.”

In the background of all this: For decades, Minneapolis and St. Paul have recorded some of the biggest racial homeownership gaps among the nation’s metro areas. According to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, 21% of all Black families in the Twin Cities own their homes, compared with 70% of white families. Research by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit community organization in St. Paul, estimates that only 10% of Minnesota Somali families own their home.

In 2013, Minnesota lawmakers, responding to a Star Tribune investigation, passed a law to curb the excesses of contracts for deed. The statute requires sellers who write more than four agreements a year to provide buyers with a notice spelling out the transaction’s disadvantages. But the notice is just a list of recommendations and warnings; no state agency is tasked with enforcing it, and buyers have to sue the seller to trigger any potential penalties. The law also does not require sellers to verify buyers’ ability to repay their debts.

Legatt said he typically attends closings to answer buyers’ questions and tries to make sure the contracts are in his buyers’ best interest. But, he said, he generally doesn’t have a uniform process for screening buyers and doesn’t verify buyers’ incomes with documentation like paystubs, which is standard practice when getting a mortgage from a bank.

At a recent closing, he said, he had to explain to a potential buyer that they would not actually own the house until the contract was satisfied. He said that he provides an interpreter when needed.

“We have built our business the right way,” he added in an email.

Under a contract for deed, buyers assume many of the risks and responsibilities of a traditional owner, and yet they can face terms that are harsher than mortgages.

Unlike a mortgage from a bank, which typically needs to be paid off in 15 or 30 years, contracts for deed often come due in five or 10 years; some contracts reviewed by ProPublica and Sahan Journal were even shorter. An assessment of the value of the house, known as an appraisal, is not required to determine the selling price. The buyer is responsible for all repairs and renovations, as well as insurance costs on the property.

“All the obligations of ownership come to you without really any of the benefits of ownership,” said Ron Elwood, supervising attorney at the Legal Services Advocacy Project, the policy advocacy arm of Legal Aid in Minnesota.

The amount of the lump-sum, or balloon, payments, which can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, may not be spelled out in the contract terms; the payment dates may also be unclear. And sellers may expect these buyers to pay off the contract by obtaining a conventional mortgage for the remainder of the balance.

Some Somali contract buyers told Sahan Journal and ProPublica that they signed documents without reading them, relying instead on verbal explanations from people they thought were trustworthy.

Some of the lawmakers behind the 2013 legislation agreed that more needs to be done to protect homebuyers.

“We got the ball somewhat down in the field, to borrow a football analogy,” said State Rep. Jim Davnie, a Democrat from south Minneapolis who sponsored the legislation. “Was it everything that was needed at the time? Probably not.”

States like Arizona and Florida have laws affording buyers more protection, like a requirement that canceled contracts be handled through the foreclosure process. This gives the buyer more time to pay the overdue balance or at least some options to recoup their money.

“We need to think very hard about following some of these other states’ leads and providing more protections and more balance in the statute to make it so that if the deal fails, it’s not a total washout,” Elwood said.

Some critics say Minnesota should take an even tougher stand against contracts for deed.

“It should not be legal, not this way, in Minnesota,” said Shirwa Adan, the executive director of the Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization, a nonprofit serving the Somali community in St. Cloud. “It’s targeting our community.”

Wafiq Fannoun, the owner of a Minneapolis-based Islamic financial consulting business called Reba Free LLC, said Islam allows flexibility when a family is facing dire circumstances or when there are no alternatives. A handful of lenders in Minnesota offer Islamic or halal financing: loans that buyers can pay off through interest-free installments.

But some prospective buyers still can’t qualify for those loans, which leaves contract for deed as one of their last options.

“Those people really need to make sure that in the process they are not being used or abused,” Fannon said.

Once the truck driver and his wife decided to buy, they visited the same real estate agent his friend had used. The agent, Ismail Harun, showed them a newly constructed home and explained the terms of a five-year contract.

In the Somali community, business deals are sometimes struck verbally and reputation matters. The trucker liked what he heard. The real estate agent connected the trucker with the principal of an investment company called Banken Holdings LLC.

Chad Banken, of Banken Holdings LLC, is listed as the officer of at least four other companies that sell homes through contracts for deed. Taken together, his companies have sold at least 100 properties since 2019, according to property records, making him one of the largest contract sellers in the state.

Banken has been a figure in Minnesota real estate for more than a decade. In the 2000s, he was a defendant in two federal lawsuits filed by homeowners attempting to save their homes from foreclosure. According to the lawsuits, Banken’s companies arranged to buy the homes and then resold them at a higher price to their former owners.

In both cases, the buyers fell into default but alleged they’d been misled — one of the cases was covered in 2006 by Minnesota Public Radio as an example of “mortgage foreclosure rescue” services gone bad. Banken denied misleading anyone and the lawsuits were settled. Banken did not return calls or respond to a detailed list of questions for this story.

Banken promotes his current contract-for-deed program on websites with names like “A Good Deed” and “Slow Flip LLC,” which call contracts for deed a “forgotten tool.” The sites say buyers must have 10% of the house price or $30,000 — whichever amount is larger — for a down payment; a “reasonable” income; and an “exit strategy” to pay off the contract at the end of its five- to 10-year term.

“Typically refinancing with a mortgage is the plan, but some exit strategies involve selling the property or making large periodic payments. Having a reasonable plan is critical to success with A Good Deed contract for deed,” one site reads. “A relief for many buyers is that YOUR CREDIT SCORE IS NOT A FACTOR.”

The truck driver bought his home according to Banken’s script: On the day of the sale, Banken’s company purchased the house using a conventional mortgage and then sold it to the trucker at a markup. The trucker and his wife put 10% down and agreed to monthly installments that were more than triple what they had been paying in rent.

The trucker said he believed that, if he worked longer hours and his wife got a job, they could swing the monthly payment, as well as make an additional $50,000 payment at the end of each year. But almost as soon as the family moved in, inflation hit the trucker’s bottom line. The cost of diesel went up and the loads he was carrying got smaller, making the monthly payments a struggle. After the trucker read the terms of his contract again, he realized his debt was even steeper; he wouldn’t be able to pay off the contract.

What’s more, the contract included interest at a rate of about 6% — which defeated the main reason to use a contract for deed. After five years, he would still be more than $500,000 in debt, which would come due all at once.

At that point, if the family couldn’t pay the balance or refinance, they could lose their home and have to walk away from nearly $300,000 in payments.

(Imran Hussein, special to ProPublica)

Since then, the trucker has been looking for help to get out of the deal. This summer, he and his wife walked into the Bloomington offices of Sakan Community Resource, a nonprofit that provides financial counseling and homebuying classes to the Muslim immigrant community. The trucker gave Executive Director Johanna Osman a copy of the contract he’d signed.

Although she’d heard from friends and colleagues that more and more Somali families were buying homes this way, it was the first contract Osman had seen with her own eyes.

“While I was reading, I was getting really angry,” she said. “Oh, it was insidious.”

The trucker also spoke to one of the banks in Minnesota that offer Islamic financing. But he said it turned him down because the price he’d agreed to pay for his house exceeded the appraised value.

“The problem is that the markup is just kind of a made-up number,” said Wertheim, the attorney who specializes in contracts for deed. “The real disconnect is [the buyers] think: ‘All right, I’ve done this deal. At the end, I will own it.’ No, they won’t. You’ve got a balloon. That’s the problem, and it’s made more difficult by the fact that you overpaid.”

The trucker said his real estate agent, Harun, misled him about how the contract could be paid off in five years. Harun, who has sold multiple homes with Banken-backed contracts for deed, denied misinforming his clients and said he warns buyers that some contracts are overpriced and include interest. He connected Sahan Journal and ProPublica with a client who said that Harun explained the terms clearly.

“I can advise them, but I cannot force them. And I’m not here to make decisions on their behalf,” Harun said. “Whoever’s doing the loan, that’s the person who has to explain to them what the terms are, what the down payments are, what the rates are, how they pay and all that stuff.”

Osman said she is trying to work with families to bring complaints about predatory practices to the attorney general’s office. Weli, of Isuroon, said her organization is building a legal team to help families who have bought through contracts for deed. But she added that many buyers are ashamed and afraid.

“These families are not talking. They’re not talking. They’re just disappearing,” she said. “So then there’s a lack of accountability.”

On a visit this summer, the trucker stood in his finished basement gazing out onto the verdant backyard that he’d wanted so much for his children. The room was almost empty. He’d been so worried about losing their home that he stopped trying to furnish it.

Signing the contract, he said, was the biggest mistake of his life.

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Hurricanes Eta and Iota brought disaster to Central America. Officials can’t retire their names.

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Meteorologists are pushing to change the existing naming convention.
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Passing as a refugee

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Borders and camps across Africa are using biometrics to track refugees. But for those who are stateless, “fraud” can allow for the smuggling of truths into administrative lies.


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Faces of Dadaab. Image credit Riyaad Minty via Flickr CC.

Names and details have been changed to protect anonymity. Mahad’s story is a composite of interviews by the author with more than one person. This post is part of our series, “Histories of Refuge,” made up of essays from participants in the Rethinking Refuge Workshop. It is edited by historian Madina Thiam.

Mahad was born in Kenya—a fact that neither his passport, nor carefully scripted biography suggests. For decades, Kenyan Somalis (citizens of Kenya who also identify as Somali) have faced discrimination in accessing legal documents, including national identity cards, passports, and birth certificates. To even be considered for a national ID, most have to undergo an intimidating, invasive vetting process to assess the authenticity of their claims to citizenship. This process alone excludes many legitimate citizens from obtaining this crucial document. Without an ID in Kenya, one cannot enjoy many basic political and economic rights. These include opening a bank account, registering a SIM card, gaining formal employment, entering into government and corporate offices, and even moving about freely.

Like many Kenyan Somalis, Mahad ran afoul of registration agents when he tried to register for a national ID. He faced particular difficulty because his family structure defied easy ethnic categorization. Stuck in an impossible position, he turned to one of the few avenues available to him: passing as a refugee.

For decades, government officials and NGO workers have struggled to distinguish between refugees fleeing from Somalia and local Somalis with Kenyan citizenship. In recent years, states and international bodies have turned to techno-political solutions to this elusive problem. In 2007, the UNHCR introduced fingerprint and later iris scans to Kenya’s refugee camps. The UNHCR has also worked closely with the Kenyan government to identify cases of “double registration” (people who possess a Kenyan ID card or are on record as having applied for one). Through capacity building programs, they have strengthened the Kenyan state’s ability to carry out refugee registration. The National Registration Bureau of Kenya is now able to run the fingerprints of any person who applies for a national ID through the government’s refugee database, ensnaring people engaged in such doubling acts in legal limbo.

A biometric trail also follows African asylum seekers and migrants who make their way to Europe. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has implemented systems for capturing fingerprints and facial images at border points across 16 African countries. Such measures outsource border security, bringing technology deep into African states and along migration routes and strengthening the ability of Western nation-states “to prevent would-be asylum seekers from reaching their territories where their claims would be heard.” Migrants who manage to reach European shores are likely to have their fingerprints captured on the EU’s European Asylum Dactyloscopy Database (EURODAC), which identifies countries of first asylum. Had Mahad been born a few years later, his life trajectory would have likely looked very different. However, he was lucky to have come of age before the 9/11 securitization of borders, before the fever for biometrics had captured the imaginations of governments, intergovernmental bodies, and humanitarian organizations.

Mahad’s story begins with his enterprising and eccentric maternal grandmother, Khadija. As a young divorcée, Khadija moved from Italian Somaliland to Kenya in the late 1940s, during the waning years of British colonial rule. She settled in Narok, a predominately Maasai area in the south of the country, where she started a successful retail business and became known around town for her wit, business acumen, and occasional lapses into unreality. She soon caught the eye of a wealthy elder Maasai woman who claimed her as a long-lost daughter, adopting Khadija though she was already well into adulthood. When she died, Khadija inherited a portion of her property. This is how she came to stay in Narok, where she raised several children, including Mahad’s mother.

Mahad was born in the 1970s, one of only a few Kenyan-Somali children in this largely Maasai area. When he was little more than a toddler, his father decided to relocate the family to Wajir in northern Kenya, where they could live amongst his extended family. Moving from Narok to his father’s birthplace created unanticipated problems for Mahad—problems that only revealed themselves when he reached 18, the age when Kenyans pass through a standard rite of passage: acquiring a national ID.

For Mahad, obtaining this routine yet crucial document proved impossible. Registration agents in northern Kenya refused to process his application, redirecting him to the birthplace listed on his birth certificate. Yet, to officials in Narok he was an outsider. The kinship ties laid down by his grandmother had been lost to the stream of time. No local chief was able to pen a letter on Mahad’s behalf verifying his parentage, even though his mother had been born in the area. As a Somali, one’s citizenship status in Kenya is often called into question. As a stranger and minority in the region, Mahad was doubly suspect. Shuffled back and forth between Narok and Wajir, he found himself hedged into that ostracized category: the stateless.

Echoes of empire reverberated throughout this experience. Under British rule, Kenyans were governed according to their designated tribe. After introducing fingerprint-based ID cards in the early 20th century, the British colonial regime had insisted that Africans register in their native reserves, their putative ethnic homelands. This ethno-territorial logic—the idea of affixing people to paper to territory—had left an enduring mark on Kenya’s post-independence ID system.

After two tiresome years of trying, unsuccessfully, to acquire a national ID in both his birthplace and hometown, Mahad took a different route. Across the border in Somalia, he could easily obtain a passport. The Republic of Somalia had long championed a pan-ethnic project that embraced all Somalis as members of its imagined nation, regardless of whether they were born in a neighboring country. Somaliness may be no less contested a category than Kenyaness, but Mahad fit the part. Somalia was perhaps the only country that would accept him without question.

After Mahad acquired a Somali passport, the family paid an NGO official to smuggle him aboard a humanitarian flight to Europe, where he claimed asylum. Today, he is a Swedish citizen. When Mahad reentered to Kenya for the first time to visit family, he did so as a foreigner. It was a homecoming on a tourist visa.

According to the letter of the law (international humanitarian law, to be exact), Mahad was not a refugee: a person forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence with a well-founded fear of returning home. Yet, passing as one—gaining refuge under an adopted nationality—was one of the few ways out of a life teetering upon statelessness. The slow violence of bureaucratic indifference had denied him access to his natal citizenship. Adopting an assumed nationality offered him a way out. This is the type of strategy, the kind of creative corruption, employed by those pushed to the margins of political systems.

Biometric identifiers have offered the enticing promise of tying legal status directly to the body, closing the distance between the copy and the original, eliminating the possibility of mimicry and fraud. Indeed, digital biometrics can curb certain kinds of fraud, bribery, and forgery (even as it makes corruption a more expensive, high-tech endeavor). Integrating and centralizing national and refugee databases may make it easier for authorities to detect people like Mahad, who do not so much fall through the cracks as operate within them.

Notwithstanding, it is worth asking what (and who) gets lost when countries and international bodies turn to such automated biometric solutions. Data gaps, administrative failures, and clunky analog systems have caused myriad challenges for those at the mercy of dispassionate bureaucracies. They have also provided people forced to assume false identities—especially those who blur the line between citizen and refugee—room to maneuver complex, transnational lives.

In many cases, “fraud” can allow for the smuggling of truths into administrative lies.


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Humanitarian Camp Raided by Border Patrol and BORTAC, 30+ People Arrested

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Arivaca, AZ – The government ramped up its efforts to stop humanitarian workers on the U.S.-Mexico border and raided the ‘No More Deaths’ aid station, Byrd Camp, arresting over 30 people.
The Friday, July 31 raid featured the U.S. Border Patrol, an armored vehicle, two…

The post Humanitarian Camp Raided by Border Patrol and BORTAC, 30+ People Arrested appeared first on UNICORN RIOT.

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