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Janaia Barnhart, 15
Wilmington, Maryland
September 14, 2016

Agencies: Delaware State Police | Delaware Attorney General's Office | AdvoServ

Last updated: 2 months ago

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As she waited in a Delaware hospital for her daughter to die, Carla Thomas watched a silent video of the teenager’s last conscious hour.

The video showed Janaia Barnhart, 15, bouncing down the stairs of the group home where she lived, Thomas said. The girl from Hyattsville, Maryland, had mental illness and threw tantrums, but on that September morning her expression suggested the mischievous laugh her mom knew well.

Ahead of her carrying a black garbage bag was an employee of AdvoServ, the for-profit company that owned the home. The worker stepped toward the bedroom where the girl kept her most prized possessions — her MP3 player, movies, magic markers, karaoke machine. Seeing Janaia coming, the worker threw back an arm, shoving her hard against the hallway wall. Janaia, who was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 227 pounds, shoved back. Both disappeared into the room, which was just big enough for a twin bed and dresser.

Four more workers rushed in behind them. Thirty-two minutes later, according to Thomas, paramedics arrived to find Janaia on the floor, naked, with no pulse.

Since then, Thomas has buried and mourned her daughter. But she has no idea what happened in those 32 minutes. “I still don’t have an inkling, nothing,” Thomas said in an exclusive interview with ProPublica.

Janaia’s death represents another setback for AdvoServ, part of a growing, government-funded industry that provides housing and care nationwide for hundreds of thousands of people with developmental or intellectual disabilities.  Both Maryland and Delaware had already sanctioned the company, which is besieged with complaints about its treatment of a vulnerable population and the conditions of its homes.

Thomas’s questions about her daughter’s death have only multiplied since AdvoServ chief executive Michael Martin played the video for her on his laptop. The footage didn’t show the inside of Janaia’s bedroom. And during four crucial minutes, a worker opened a closet door and blocked the view of the room’s entranceway.

Staff at AdvoServ gave Thomas conflicting stories, acknowledging workers pinned Janaia down in her bedroom but never explaining why she lost consciousness. Doctors at the hospital told Thomas they did not know why the otherwise physically healthy teenager’s heart had stopped.

Thomas and her lawyer, Julia Arfaa, say that Delaware officials have stymied their efforts to secure basic information. The state attorney general’s office told Arfaa that, while a police investigation was ongoing, it would not allow release of a recording of workers’ call to 911. “Releasing the 911 tape at this time could potentially jeopardize the investigation, because the call contains potentially sensitive information,” said Carl Kanefsky, spokesman for the attorney general’s office. The office will decide whether to file criminal charges after law enforcement agencies have finished their investigations, he said.

A Delaware medical examiner refused Arfaa’s request for initial autopsy findings. Last week, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner said it has not completed the autopsy and will notify Janaia’s family when it does. Delaware state police won’t elaborate on the circumstances of the girl’s death or even release her name.

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