CONCORD -- They walked out of separate adult care facilities in Concord. One of the mentally impaired adults wandered the streets for hours; the second died just a few dozen steps from the facility's front door.
Family members in each case say the worry and harm could have been avoided had caregivers called 911 immediately to launch a quicker, broader search. And now they are pushing for a new law that would require those calls, hoping to spare other families from similar tragedy.
Nearly 2,000 dependent adults were reported missing last year, and elder advocates say a quick response is key to clients' safety.
In the case of 86-year-old Yolanda Membreno, the workers at Julia's Home on Sept. 30 did not call police until more than an hour after noticing she was missing. Membreno was found dead on a playground about 100 yards away a few hours later.
"You could see where the body was from the front door" of the care facility, said Sabrina Sanchez, Membreno's daughter-in-law. "Time was critical for her."
When 24-year-old Caitlin Lester was noticed missing by her mother who came to pick her up at Concord House the evening of July 15, it had been three hours since the developmentally-disabled woman and two others were supposed to return from a walk to Starbucks a few blocks away. After police were called, Caitlin was found by a good Samaritan in Walnut Creek, seven miles away from the home, lost but alive.
The families say the cases spotlight a gap in residential adult care facility regulations. While facility staff are required to contact the state right away when someone leaves and may be in danger, there is no mandate for them to call police.
That has turned Denise Lester, Caitlin's mother, into an activist, reaching out to state Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, for help. The lawmaker's office is researching a proposed bill that would require care home facilities to contact authorities, including police, immediately after a resident is discovered missing or has failed to return at a scheduled time.
"I think it's a good start," Pat McGinnis, founder of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said of Lester's proposal. The push for a new law is focused on adult care home facilities regulated by the Community Care Licensing Division, under the California Department of Social Services. Its scope does not include skilled-nursing facilities, which are licensed by the California Department of Health Services and have different criteria for who can come and go.
In Caitlin's case, Sister Maryanne Leyba, one of two Catholic nuns who run Concord House, called the police for the first time after their charge's mother came to pick her up and could not find her, police reports show.
Caitlin and her friends had became lost while eventually wandering across the Walnut Creek border at Oak Grove Road and Ygnacio Valley Road. A good Samaritan found them and alerted police at 8:25 p.m.
Caitlin has difficulty walking as a result of her cerebral palsy, the consequence of multiple surgeries related to schizencephaly, a neurological disorder caused by abnormal development of the brain. On a good day, Caitlin walks four blocks, her mother said; that day, Caitlin and the two others walked seven miles and were gone for nearly seven hours.
A state investigation found Concord House did not call the Community Care Licensing Division to report the missing people, as required by law. Inspection records also show Concord House had no file for Caitlin despite being a respite care client since 2006, a violation of state code. Concord House was fined $1,300 two weeks later, after state investigators returned and found the care provider had not followed the state's plan of corrections, records show.
Concord House did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Roy Roberto, who operates Julia's Home, said they conduct their own search before calling police -- the protocol followed in Membreno's case. Still, Roberto said he would be open to a new law requiring him to call police. "On our end, I'd be fine with that," he said.
Back at the Lesters' Rossmoor home, Denise Lester said her daughter exhibits signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome -- which surfaced after she went missing -- as well incontinence and aggravated sleep apnea. The long walk on July 15 left Caitlin with bloody wounds on her thighs and doctors discovered Caitlin had not only a severe urinary tract infection, but was also going into septic shock, her mother said.
"Everything working for her up until this point no longer works or is severely impacted," said Denise Lester.
Membreno's family has hired Walnut Creek attorney Michael Cardoza, and await autopsy results. The family found a neighbor who claims to have seen Membreno outside hours before the care home began looking for her.
"She didn't deserve to die that way," daughter-in-law Sanchez said. "She deserves to die with dignity. There's no way we can just let it be. We don't want it to happen to anyone else."
Contra Costa: 37
Santa Clara: 114
Source: California Department of Justice