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April 28, 2016

Whitney bedbugs prove a pesky investment

By Lani Duke

RUTLAND—Neal and Patricia Whitney began opening their home to high-risk girls in need of foster care about 1993. In 2008, they were named Rutland’s Foster Parents of the Year. Over time, they provided a home to more than 200 children through the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

In 2012, the DCF asked them to take in a teen scheduled to leave the hospital after giving birth. The hospital had refused to release her to return to her apartment because it was infested with bedbugs. DCF agreed to pay to get rid of any bedbug infestation that might occur as a result of the girl’s placement with the Whitneys.

When bedbugs became apparent a month later, DCF gave the Whitneys cans of bug spray. When the do-it-yourself solution proved inadequate, DCF hired a pest control company, based in Glens Falls, N.Y. Repeated treatments failed to eliminate the pests; instead, they multiplied. The Whitneys told social workers, the resource coordinator and the district coordinator that they were continuing to be bitten at the night.

After eight months of unsuccessful treatments, the state hired a company from the Rutland area in April 2013. Although their state contacts said the company was highly recommended by the Department of Health, Neal Whitney observed the applicator spraying with something resembling a carwash wand, and Patricia Whitney saw liquid dripping from the kitchen cupboards and “pooling on the floor.” This application was nothing like the others they had seen the year before. It smelled much like kerosene.

The applicator had sprayed the house with chlorpyrifos, a pesticide banned from interior use since 2001. The Agency of Agriculture tested the Whitneys’ house at Patricia Whitney’s request and found high concentrations of the banned organophosphate, a substance that the Environmental Protection Agency has declared can “impact the nervous system,” causing nausea, dizziness, and confusion. It’s especially dangerous for pregnant women. Very high exposure can cause respiratory paralysis and death.

Although the applicator told EPA investigators dispatched to Rutland that he had not used the chemical for the previous eight or nine years, other homes that he had treated test positive for chlorpyrifos. Eleven families, including the Whitneys, were told they had to move out and most had to leave the bulk of their personal possessions behind; the state aided in finding them new places to live. The pesticide applicator’s license was suspended in June 2013. The Whitneys’ house remains uninhabitable.

In November 2013, the Whitneys filed a federal court suit against the Vermont Agency of Human Services head Doug Racine and several VCF officials. Assistant Vermont Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan initially argued that the couple could not sue state officials acting in their official capacity, but that the state was sympathetic to the Whitneys and the hardships they had faced already. She filed to have their suit dismissed. It wasn’t.

In June 2014, the Whitneys accepted a $450,000 settlement, according to Jacobs-Carnahan. Their attorney, Karl Anderson, told the local daily paper, “When it’s all said and done, this will allow them to start their life over with a little cushion.” That isn’t the only cushion they received. They apparently received an additional $450,000 judgment from homeowners’ insurance policy issuer Vermont Mutual Insurance Co. Getting that sum was a two-step process. The trial court denied their claim, a decision that the Vermont Supreme Court reversed in December 2015.

On April 4, 2016, the Whitneys sued the Glens Falls company, seeking a $75,000 judgment for damages. Their suit alleges that the company engaged in unfair and deceptive acts and practices, violating the Vermont Consumer Fraud Act. Neither the Whitneys nor their attorney could be reached by telephone for comments.

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