WASHINGTON – Advocates for the disabled were disappointed this week when a former group home worker was sentenced to probation and community service after leaving five severely retarded adults in a hot van while she went shopping.
Shandell Nikki Matthews, 31, was originally charged with five misdemeanor counts each of reckless endangerment and neglect of a vulnerable adult in connection with the July 1, 2001, incident. The neglect charge can bring a sentence of up to five years and $10,000, while the reckless endangerment charge carries a maximum five-year, $5,000 penalty.
But Matthews pleaded guilty to one count of neglect in exchange for the state dropping the reckless endangerment charges, said David Lunden, director of the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
She was sentenced Tuesday by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Michael D. Mason to two year’s supervised probation, ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and receive 100 hours of education in special-needs care.
Advocates for the disabled said this week that they have been watching the case closely, but they declined specific comment on the sentence when pressed Friday.
Lunden said the judge suspended the sentence because “there was no harm to the individuals in the van, she had no criminal record, and she cooperated with the investigators.” He called it “a fair judgement.”
“No harm, fortunately, came of them. If that were the case, there would be a much harsher penalty imposed,” Lunden said.
At the time of the incident, state law classified neglect of a vulnerable adult as a misdemeanor, regardless of the severity of neglect or the injuries suffered. By contrast, the state that year upgraded the crime of aggravated animal cruelty to a felony. According to the Humane Society of the United States, leaving a pet unattended in a hot car can be considered animal cruelty in Maryland.
As of Oct. 1, 2002, first-degree neglect of a vulnerable adult — which includes death, serious bodily injury, or sexual abuse — was classified as a felony, with a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. Abuse or neglect in the second degree — which Lunden said would include acts such as leaving profoundly retarded adults in a hot car — is still a misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine, or both.
When Matthews left her five charges in the van at a Silver Spring mall, the temperature was 86 degrees and only “one of the windows was cracked,” Lunden said. He said they were left in the van for 50 minutes.
But Matthews’ attorney, Scott L. Little, said his client only acknowledged in her plea agreement that she left the van for 20 minutes.
“She went to the mall, but not to get items for herself,” Little said. “She went there to use her own money to buy things for a gentlemen she was caring for because she was going to take them on a picnic.”
“There was no evidence of reckless endangerment . . . not from our perspective,” he said.
Lunden agreed that the reckless endangerment did not characterize what happened that day. The charge “means there was a significant risk of injury or neglect,” he said, but the neglect charge “best describes what happened here.”
“Had she left the people out in a boat floating in the Bay, that would be reckless endangerment,” said Lunden.