A lawsuit is accusing a local group home of creating a situation that led to the rape of a 25-year-old special needs woman after residents at the facility were transferred to a hotel in downtown Mobile so their caregivers could enjoy the Mardi Gras festivities.

The business at the center of the case is Agape House. Located in the Axis area of Mobile County, it’s one of several residential care facilities operated under the umbrella of Agape Ministries, Inc. — a nonprofit organization operated by Rodney and Shetecia Chastang.

According to the Mobile Police Department, the sexual assault was reported after officers responded to reports of a naked female walking around the area of Bienville Square. Unable to communicate with officers, she was transported to the hospital and evaluated for sexual assault.

The victim, who Lagniappe is choosing not to identify, suffers from “Phelan-McDermid Syndrome,” — rare chromosomal disorder that is “generally thought of as a severe form of autism.”

At the time, police said she’d been staying with her caretakers at the Candlewood Suites on Feb. 28 (the evening Fat Tuesday) and had left her room. However, the lawsuit claims she was only able to leave her room because she’d been left alone “while her so-called caregivers were out celebrating Mardi Gras.”

“[She] could not even tell the officer who she was or what had happened to her,” the complaint reads. “Later, officers found [her] pajamas and her soiled adult diaper. Doctors at [a local hospital] concluded she had been forcefully raped.” She was administered prophylactic antibiotics to try to protect her from sexually transmitted diseases, according to the complaint.

So far, MPD has not identified a suspect in the sexual assault case, though its investigation is still open. However, if some of the civil allegations against Agape House prove to be true, the facility and its owners may be facing potential criminal liability as well.

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich.

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told Lagniappe Friday that her office has already launched a criminal investigation into “the entire situation” including “the caregivers and whether there’s criminal liability based on their duty to provide for these individuals.”

The lawsuit claims Agape House displayed “negligence and wantonness” by failing to supervise the victim after she and other residents were “uprooted from [their] isolated residence in Axis” and moved into hotel rooms “so the Chastangs and the [Agape House] staff could party during Mardi Gras.”

“Upon moving [the victim] from her isolated and familiar surroundings to the noise and chaos of downtown Mobile during Mardi Gras, [the caregivers] had a heightened duty to ensure [she] received twenty-four-hour, one-on-one care and supervision,” the complaint reads. “And, the existing duty to protect [the victim] from her ‘wandering risk’ became even greater because of the deliberate decision to place [her] in an unfamiliar setting surrounded by the cacophony and chaos of Mardi Gras.”

The lawsuit suggests that in the hours before the victim was sexually assaulted, the task of supervising her was repeatedly redelegated to different people. Two sisters “closely related to the Chastangs” were initially supervising the victim and another resident who were sharing a one-bed hotel room.

Ultimately, their care was left up to people who were “not trained or employed” by Agape House in any way. It was at that point, according to the lawsuit, that the victim — a known “wandering risk” — was able to leave the hotel room and walk unaccompanied into the streets of downtown Mobile.

However, Agape House isn’t the only target of the lawsuit. Among the defendants is the parent company of the hotel where the residents were staying, as well as Volunteers of America Southeast, Inc. [VOA] and AltaPointe Health Systems, Inc.

According to the suit, VOA was contracted by the victim’s case manager, AltaPointe, to provide administration, oversight, training and supervision of the Chastangs and the group homes they operate.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote that AltaPointe was “ultimately responsible” for ensuring the other defendants met their contractual and legal obligations to residents and that it and VOA approved of Agape House’s decision to relocate residents to the downtown hotel Feb. 28.

Even before that incident, though, the complaint suggests AltaPointe and VOA “had plenty of evidence” the Chastangs and Agape House “were incompetent, poorly managed, and unfit to care” for the victim and other residents adding that the group home has previously “violated
multiple safety standards and protocols.”

“VOA and AltaPointe did nothing to address the problems even though they were well equipped with information to alert them that violations of their standards and protocols were occurring,” it continues.

Both VOA and AltaPointe have declined or failed to respond to opportunities seeking comment on this report. A spokeswoman with AltaPointe also declined to elaborate on the corporation’s relationship with VOA or Agape House. Calls to Agape House have also gone unreturned.

According to its website, “AltaPointe owns, operates and staffs several group homes,” though it also monitors a number of adult foster homes operated by private contractors. Being that Agape House and Agape Ministries are both independently owned by the Chastangs, they likely fit into the latter category, though AltaPointe has not confirmed that.

In a previous interview with Lagniappe, AltaPointe’s Performance Improvement Director, Sherrill Alexander, said AltaPointe does not contract with unlicensed group homes, which there are roughly 20 in Mobile County. She said any facility housing AltaPointe patients would be certified through the Alabama Department of Mental Health.

According to the ADMH website, Agape House LLC was previously listed among the certified sites reported by the agency, though they’ve not been certified as of April 4, 2017 — just over a month after the incident that occurred on Fat Tuesday.

Agape House has previously been certified through VOA which according to ADMH, was previously certified through the Council on Quality and Leadership (CQL).

Using this “deemed” method of certification, “DMH accepts a certification, license or accreditation issued by other recognized state or national organizations in lieu of an additional review through the DMH certification process” — meaning that the usual 24-month site visits DMH normally conducts are “waived” at those facilities.