BILLINGS- When Misty Mitchell talks about her dad Robert Petersen, there’s a sparkle in her eyes along with a sadness in her voice.
“My dad was an amazing man,” said Mitchell. “The most compassionate person you would ever meet.”
She dotes on her dad, saying he was a devoted father, husband, and grandfather to her children who grew up in Sidney. He was also an accomplished businessman, golfer and singer.
Peterson was just 74 years old and was living at Canyon Creek Memory Care Community in Billings when he died. He lived suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and dementia.
He was one of 17 residents at the center to die of COVID-19 during an outbreak in the height of the pandemic, but Mitchell says she saw things going south with the facility long before that.
“They took my dad, and there was no reason for him to go,” she said.
This week, Mitchell filed a lawsuit claiming negligence in Yellowstone County District Court. The suit says Canyon Creek’s owner — Olympia, Washington-based Koelsch Communities — knowingly kept the facility understaffed to save money and increase revenue.
Mitchell, who visited her dad every day, saw it firsthand.
“And this was prior to COVID, where he wouldn't be sitting in feces,” she said. “He would be in his clothes just filthy.”
Petersen became a resident of Canyon Creek in the summer of 2019 and was healthy. Mitchell provided care to him while was living in the facility and observed instances of neglect and mistreatment.
She said that staff was not regularly assisting him with going to the bathroom, proper grooming and bathing and even making changes to his medication without permission, according to the complaint.
However, when the pandemic hit, Mitchell was shut out — much like other family members with loved ones in Canyon Creek.
After a test came back positive from a resident in the summer of 2020, Canyon Creek staff shut down the facility. At that time, tests revealed that 73% of all residents and 15 staff members tested positive for the virus.
Prior to that, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Canyon Creek was among a minority of long-term care and assisted living facilities in the state that declined participation in the state’s free testing program.
In the complaint, Mitchell says it wasn’t until late July of 2020 that she was able to see her father. She remembers him soaked in his own urine, and severely underweight. She says the staff was not checking on him regularly and that he was dehydrated.
At that point, Petersen could no longer stand, speak or swallow.
Not long after, Mitchell’s father was taken to the hospital with a fever where the family was told “to say their goodbyes.” Mitchell says that while her dad’s condition did stabilize enough to be discharged, he never fully recovered and died in September of 2020.
“They do need to be held accountable,” she said. “They need to be held accountable for not training their staff, not having enough staff and that starts at the beginning.”
And that is from where her lawsuit stems: Mitchell believes Koelsch Communities is putting profit over patients.
MTN News reached out to Koelsch Communities for remarks regarding the lawsuit only to receive the following statement via email below.
“While it is our corporate policy not to comment on ongoing litigation, I can tell you that we take this matter very seriously. As our CEO communicated to Governor Bullock in an open letter dated July 17, 2020, we follow strict infection control protocols and prioritize the health and safety of our residents and team members. Canyon Creek is a purpose-built memory care community distinctively designed, staffed, and dedicated to providing critical care for those living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. We remain wholly committed to the very highest standards of care for all our residents. - Koelsch Communities spokesperson Chase Salyers
Some might call Koelsch a powerhouse in the assisted living and memory care business, running roughly 40 facilities in eight states across the country. The company also operates a facility in Bozeman.
However, in addition to the 17 Montana residents who died during the pandemic at Canyon Creek, the company also lost 10 residents at a memory care facility in Frisco, Texas, also in 2020 from COVID, according to reporting done by NBC 5 in Dallas.
Still, the company says it's emerging stronger than ever, opening four more communities in 202,1 according to COO Eva Arant, who told Senior Housing News that Koelsch had “good net-positive growth every month from March of that year forward.”
Mitchell believes Canyon Creek failed to provide enough qualified staff on duty 24 hours a day and she believes the company is misrepresenting itself to families looking for long-term care.
Her hope is that her dad’s story will help another family speak up, be an advocate and ask questions.
“They need to be held accountable,” she said.