CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Mouy Tang walked out of the Unique Living adult care facility in Cleveland County on September 3, 2008.
Tang suffered from mental and cognitive impairments. She lived at the facility, a licensed adult care facility that primarily cared for adults with mental impairment, for years.
The door she walked through on September 3 didn’t have a working alarm. In fact, according to an inspection of the facility by state regulators less than two months before Tang left, most of the doors at Unique Living had door alarms that weren’t working.
Another resident was able to leave the facility days before the state’s inspection.
The inspector from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services gave Unique Living until August 29 to make changes to the deficiencies cited in the inspection. But hadn’t come back to the facility to ensure those changes had, in fact, been made by the time Tang left.
After Tang walked out of Unique Living, she wasn’t seen for nearly ten years, until her remains were found roughly 100 yards from the facility in 2018.
Tang’s family filed a lawsuit against N.C. DHHS after her remains were found.
The central tenet of the lawsuit is that Tang would not have gone missing and died had DHHS enforced its regulations as required by law.
The N.C. Industrial Commission, which hears lawsuits filed against the state, sided with Tang’s family in court twice.
DHHS is now appealing the second decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
“It should be noted that DHHS disagrees with the conclusions drawn by the North Carolina Industrial Commission in this case, and believes that appellate review by the North Carolina Court of Appeals will result in a reversal of those conclusions,” Amy Ellis, a spokeswoman for DHHS said in a statement for this story.
But records produced in the legal action show a long history of concerns with regulators in Cleveland County and Unique living.
Local officials with the Cleveland County Department of Social Services sent at least a half-dozen letters to DHHS officials at the Division of Health Service Regulation, which is charged with regulating nursing homes and other adult care facilities, between 2006 and 2008.
Among the correspondence from the county to DHHS was a memo in 2006 detailing a list of problems with the facility, a letter in 2006 requesting state officials consider changing Unique Living’s license to one for a mental health facility and a letter in 2008 asking state officials to appoint a temporary manager for the facility.
Instead, state officials sent the inspector in July 2008 who found a number of problems but none of them deemed serious enough to take emergent action.
Then Tang walked out.
It wasn’t until after Tang’s disappearance that her family knew of the myriad problems at Unique Living.
“We were under the impression that she was well taken care of. Never knew of any report,” Quynh Tang, Mouy’s sister-in-law, said.
After more than a decade fighting for justice for Mouy, Quynh Tang said she doesn’t trust DHHS to keep seniors and mentally ill safe.
“They really don’t care about their seniors,” she said. “They don’t care about their mental health. They just don’t care.”
During the legal proceeding, Megan Lamphere, the current head DHSR, the office responsible for regulating these facilities, defended the lack of action taken to enforce deadlines for corrective action.
"Ms. Lamphere noted that the “date of correction” was not actually a deadline," the Industrial Commission wrote in its opinion ruling for the Tang family. “DHSR would typically return 45-60 days after the correction date to follow up to ensure the facility had come into compliance.”
The opinion also quoted Libby Kinsey, who reports to Lamphere, as blaming the family for Tang’s disappearance.
“She also suggested Ms. Tang’s family should have done more to address their concerns regarding her deteriorating mental state,” the opinion said.
The state’s position continues to frustrate Chris Duggan, who, along with William Goldfarb, represents the Tang Family.
“The state knew about the significant problems at this facility over the years and chose not to do anything about it,” Duggan said.
“The state says it’s not our fault that Ms. Tang walked away.”
Ellis, the DHHS spokeswoman, continued to defend the agency’s lack of enforcement of deadlines for corrective action in her statement to WBTV but did not defend or explain Kinsey’s efforts to blame Tang’s family for her disappearance.
“It is the responsibility of a licensed facility to appropriately care for and protect each of its residents. In that regard, DHHS utilizes its regulatory authority to take licensure action against facilities that fail to meet licensure requirements. In the event DHHS regulators discover serious facility noncompliance with licensure requirements, DHHS requires that facility to immediately begin a remedial corrective process while DHHS regulators remain onsite. Thereafter, the facility is given a deadline to formulate its permanent corrective action plan and submit that plan to DHHS,” Ellis said.
“The facility is also given a deadline to implement that permanent corrective action. DHHS returns, unannounced, to the facility after that deadline to assure that the permanent corrective action has been implemented and maintained. Rarely would DHHS return on the exact deadline since DHHS' next inspection is, necessarily, unannounced and intended to allow DHHS to confirm the facility has implemented and maintained the corrective action.”
For Quynh Tang, she and her family hope their story and decade-long struggle brings greater accountability to the regulators who failed to kept Mouy Tang safe.
“Their head is still in the sand. They really don’t care,” she said.
“You’re putting your family member, someone that you really love, into the state’s care and this what you get.”