Hoarding cases can be difficult, especially when there are children involved. This is a hoarding case study involving a case reported to Child Protective Services in South Carolina. I received a call from a family stating that the Department of Social Services had given them 45 days to bring their home in compliance, or they may be forced to take the children into protective custody. When the family called, there were still about 30 days left to get the home in compliance. I asked to speak with the case agent, so they were able to give me her number. I left a voicemail asking for a returned phone call and left a brief description, including the customer name, address and what my plan of action was.
I was able to schedule the cleaning the following day. I had not heard from the case agent by the time we started working, so I followed the Uniform Inspection Checklist (click the blue link below). This list isn’t official, but serves as a great starting point if no written information is available. The checklist serves to point out several key health and safety issues in a home and gives a family an opportunity to address specific, identifiable issues, as opposed to removing everything from a home. This checklist can give a family a unified effort to make the areas safer and complaint.
However, this case became more difficult, as a family friend attempted to insert himself in the cleanup effort. I believe his efforts were in good faith; however, what he claimed DSS wanted was far outside of the scope of other DSS cases I worked on. He claimed that the entire house needed to be painted, that some unwanted appliances in the back yard needed to be removed (likely a code enforcement issue, not a DSS issue), that the carpeted needed to be removed and replaced, the upholstered furniture needed to be properly cleaned, the house needed a new roof and the kitchen needed to be completely updated, among many other things. Since I had not heard back from the CPS case agent by the start of the job, I decided to only address the Uniform Inspection Checklist first, then address any other issues. The family was lost – should they trust the family friend or us? I convinced them that completing the checklist would go a long way in showing compliance, so they agreed.
As we finished with the checklist on day 1 (we partnered with another local cleaning service who was looking to learn more about these jobs), I received a call from the CPS case agent. I explained who I was and the volume of similar cases we had helped with and asked what we needed to get the house in compliance. I texted her a copy of the Uniform Inspection Checklist and before and after pictures of each room and she informed me that we had done much more than necessary to get the home in minimal compliance. She informed me that the suggested repairs were encouraged, but not necessary. The 45 day notice that was given to the family wasn’t an official notice – it was given to ensure the family was making progress when the follow up inspection happened in 45 days. Because we were able to get the house in compliance quickly, the case agent visited the home the following day (with permission from the family), passed the inspection and was instructed to maintain housing compliance.
The family was relieved, but had trouble understanding why the original work described wasn’t required. We found out that the family friend was concerned for the family and turned the house over to Child Protective Services. While there were some issues that concerned CPS, there weren’t any imminent threats to the health or safety of the children.
When working a case where DSS or CPS in involved, reach out to the agent first. Make sure there is an active case open. Try to get a written notice on what needs to get completed and what is recommended. Complete the required work first. Follow up with the case agent when the completed work is required. DSS is overworked and have many emergency-ish cases they are actively working on. If you can help bring a case in compliance, you can not only be a resource for that agent but will likely be referred to more future cases. In my experience, Child Protective Services would prefer to work with a service provider who knows the system and whose goal in quick housing compliance, especially as it involves hoarding cleanup cases.
A gentleman fell in his home and called 911. When they arrived at his home, his home was in such disrepair that the EMT workers could not use a stretcher inside his home to get him out (there were mounds of unbagged trash, sometimes as deep as 24″, throughout the home). The first responders, seeing the condition of the home, reported the case to the Department of Social Services, who referred the case to Adult Protective Services. When the gentleman was released from the hospital, he was given 30 days to get his home in compliance. He called me for assistance.
We scheduled an onsite visit with the APS case agent. The agent believed the home was so bad that it would need to be condemned. I told her, depending on his cooperation, it should take us 3 to 5 days to get the home in compliance using 3 technicians. The home owner had to pay for the job and finances were an issue for him. I formulated a game plan and decided to start at the front and rear entrance of the home. Unfortunately, the front door was deadbolted shut and he did not have a key to it (this was a fire safety issue in itself).
We started the job and were given written and verbal permission from the customer to throw out the visible trash (this gentleman didn’t take his trash outside because he physically couldn’t roll this bin to the curb – unfortunately, we see this situation quite often). After about an hour, the gentlemen re-entered the kitchen and asked about a heavily used, stained styrofoam cup (it appeared that it hadn’t been used in many years) and said we needed to go back through the trash and return it to him. This is a tough situation. It is his property and he is paying for the job, but it could take us valuable time to find this used piece of styrofoam. However, when working a hoarding case with a willing customer, establishing AND maintaining trust throughout the job is critical! Had I refused to look for the styrofoam cup, we likely would have completely lost his trust, not finished the job and he would have eventually been taken into protective custody. He later told me that he had a husband and wife couple help him several years ago and he thought they were stealing from him (this too is a common belief).
After Day 1, we had cleared out the back entrance (laundry room), kitchen, dining room, a 3′ path throughout the home, and 5’+ of space in his living area (he slept on his couch because his bedroom was so hoarded). It was more than I expected to accomplish in a single day and he was very happy with the results. We returned for Day 2 and were able to clear the front entrance, the bathroom, most of his master bedroom (he hadn’t slept in his own bed in 5+ years) and completely cleared out the trash from his living area. I asked for permission to call his APS case agent and he agreed. When his case agent arrived, she stated that there was more work to be done; however, the house was technically in compliance. In less than 2 days, we were able to meet the minimum standard for housing compliance because we understood exactly what they were looking for. The customer agreed to hire a house cleaning company to clean his home weekly or bi-weekly and agreed that they would take out any trash he accumulated between visits. The APS case agent then closed his case. He later fell inside the house again months later and a new case was opened, as he had not hired anyone to help him maintain the home.
When working with hoarding and DSS or a government agency or case agent, such as the Department of Social Services or Adult Protective Services, try to get permission to speak with the case agent (I wouldn’t recommend speaking with the agent without the customer’s permission). If you are able to speak with the agent, explain who you are and if you have assisted with any other housing compliance issues (especially if you have dealt with the same government agency before). Ask if there is a written protocol that needs to be followed in order to get the desired compliance (the protocols may be different in different counties and/or states). If no written protocol is available, produce a copy of the Uniform Inspection Checklist and ask if you can get the house in compliance with the checklist, will the home pass their inspection. If not, ask for specific ways to bring the home in compliance. In many cases, the homes are extremely severe, so identifying direct compliance issues are absolutely critical. You may need to work on areas that are in compliance in order to make room for items to rearrange and organize, but I would limit your time on working on areas that are in compliance. Maintain trust with the customer throughout the job and keep the case agent in the loop on your progress. Ask for a walk thru just before you finish or just after, but keep in mind, walk thrus may be difficult on little to no notice.
I received a call from a friend of a lady who was facing eviction. Her apartment wasn’t hoarded, but had some issues that needed to be addressed. I asked permission to speak with the property manager.
I explained to the property manager that I had a lot of experience getting homes in compliance. I asked if there was a guideline they had to follow and she stated the apartment needed to be in compliance with the Department of Housing and Urban Development standards (she didn’t have the standards for me). I tried to look up the standards online, but wasn’t able to find them. I wrote a letter to the property manager and explained that I wasn’t able to find the written standards, so I attached a copy of the Uniform Inspection Checklist (keep in mind, this list isn’t official, but is a good written reference point). I explained that I would get the apartment in the standards outlined in the UIC and that if there was anything else I needed to do beyond that, please let me know and I would complete it immediately. The inspection was supposed to happen in 3 days, so completing this quickly and accurately was vital. The property manager didn’t respond to my request for additional information outside of compliance with the UIC.
I met with the client the following morning to start the job. Using the UIC, I estimated the cleaning to take 5 – 6 hours. Fortunately, it only took 3.5 hours to complete. To make this point clear, the property management company was looking to EVICT a lady and her 2 kids in the middle of the summer for 3.5 hours of cleaning. Since the cleaning was completed on a Saturday, there was no one available to complete a walk thru. I volunteered to return to the apartment with the manager to immediately fix any of the issues that may have been overlooked during the cleaning phase. The property management allowed me to be there. The property manager stated that the apartment was now in compliance, but monthly inspections would be required. I let the manager know that if additional violations were found to call me immediately and I would make arrangements to bring the apartment into compliance. I needed the manager to understand that I was not going away after this job. It appeared that the client had asthma and possibly depression. Facing eviction during the summer heat, especially with kids, was a terrible option. There have been no additional violations reported to me after a couple of years.
If you are working with anyone who is claiming a property is in violation, ask for a written copy, if available. In this case, I was unable to get a copy, but providing a written standard used by multiple agencies appeared to serve as a good guide. If you use this method, be prepared for a violation to occur outside of the guide you are using. Keep in mind, your guide (UIC) isn’t official; it is simply a written standard you can choose to follow. Offer to come back to fix anything not in compliance. Let your point of contact know that you want to MAINTAIN compliance, not just bring the property into compliance. Don’t expect a response from the property manager or POC for these jobs. Your diligence can be the determining factor in helping to bring a property into housing compliance and keep the tenant from facing evections for housing violations.
Many hoarding issues are first identified in the yard. Depending on the municipality, there are certain conditions that must be met and maintained in a property’s yard. If those standards are not met, the property owner can face a fine, or more. I received a call from a local code enforcement official and they needed a bid to remove every unapproved items from the property of the home. Code enforcement had worked with the individual to get compliance on his property for many years, but to no avail. They received a court order to force a trashout of the yard (this did not pertain to the inside of the home or shed in the backyard; both of which were extremely hoarded as well). In these situations, the municipality pays for the work and a lien is placed against the property to ensure payment.
I met with the owner of the property and he assured me (and code enforcement) that he would have everything off of his property within a couple of days. When I arrived to start the job, it appeared he had removed a small trailer in the back yard, but very little else. After starting the job, the owner would come outside and argue with us about what we could and could not take. I showed him the court order and he said it wasn’t a legal order. We initially only loaded what he would allow us to load. He eventually went inside and left us alone.
The property was full of stuff. We consolidated the metal and made multiple trips to the scrap metal recycling center. We recycled all of the batteries on the property. We recycled as much of the plastic as we could recycle. We recycled all of the rubber tires, after removing them from the attached rims. We made multiple trips to the local landfill. It rained heavily one day and created a mud slide, which severely slowed our cleanout efforts down. Safety became an issue, so we were forced to stop until the property became safer to work on.
Eventually, we finished the entire job. On the last day, I invited the code enforcement official to walk the property with us to ensure we had removed everything to bring the property into housing compliance. The official was impressed and said he would call us about other future jobs. Now that the property was in compliance, the owner was instructed to keep the yard in compliance or face additional fines.
When working on with hoarding and code enforcement, make sure you communicate directly with the decision maker. If a forced yard trashout is ordered, the items no longer belong to the home owner, despite what the home owner may say. In situations like these where the property has been in non-compliance for years, it is highly unlikely that much, or any, effort will be made to bring the property into compliance before the forced trashout occurs. The court order gives you permission to remove everything listed on the court order from the property. Don’t be surprised to get pushback from the home owner. They are likely angry and do not agree with the order. I would suggest taking what they will allow you to take initially. Eventually, it will all be taken, but you can save yourself a lot of stress by building rapport with the homeowner. Let them know they can take the items as long as they take them now. They may attempt to take items, but likely will make little to no impact on the overall effort. Finally, request a walk thru with code enforcement when the job is complete to make sure they are happy.
A few years ago, I received a call from a young lady that worked for the Department of Mental Health. She was calling on behalf of a homeowner whose home was considered unsafe for him to live in. He was currently in protective custody, but could be released from custody when his house was deemed safe again. I scheduled a meeting with both onsite.
The home was one of the easier ones we have cleaned. There was very little clutter compared to other homes we’ve cleaned and cleaned out. It was difficult determining a Scope of Work for this job, as this home was likely a 2 on the Clutter Hoarding Scale. The client had a heavy accent and made a lot of crude jokes, but seemed harmless. I submitted a bid to get the home in compliance and it was accepted.
I estimated this job to take one to two days, depending on what the young lady deemed livable (we didn’t have a written guide and this job occurred before I found out about the UIC). The young lady stayed with us and the client while we cleaned and removed the clutter. Later in the day, the client became agitated and threatened to shoot one of my cleaning technicians. The lady heard the threat (no doubt harmlessly made) and called the sheriff’s department to remove the client from the home. With the volume of weapons on the property, I think this was a good decision. Keep in mind, as a group, we were not told of any mental illnesses or disorders.
We were able to get the house in compliance in one day and the client was released and allowed to move back into his home. The young lady thanked us for our hard work.
You are unlikely to get a call from the Department of Mental Health. I found out we received this call because the client had the means to pay for the cleaning and debris removal himself. We billed the DMH and were paid by them and he reimbursed DMH. We communicated well with the DMH representative and her presence on the job may have prevented a tragedy from occurring. If you find yourself working in a situation where a client makes a threat, whether it is credible or not, you will need to decide what action to take. The young lady made the decision for us, as we had almost no knowledge of the client’s past.
This was one of the most alarming cases I’ve ever worked on. I received a call from a real estate agent. She was a lifelong friend of the client. He had inherited his mother’s severely hoarded home. However, this one was extremely trickly. His mother passed away in the severely hoarded home. The county solicitor is an advocate for the elderly and actively investigates claims of elder abuse. This case was referred to the solicitor’s office to investigate the client for abuse of his mother (living in a severely hoarded home).
I was fortunate that the family friend informed me of this information. I’ve taken a lot of continuing education hoarding classes and even attended an elder abuse and hoarding class at a national convention. I asked for more information and asked if I could speak with the public defender representing my client. The public defender asked me not to speak with the solicitor. I could certainly understand prosecuting elder abuse but this didn’t appear to be the case this time. I’m not an expert, but I’ve worked over 750 hoarding cases and in most cases, if the parent hoards and the children live with them, the children are pre-disposed to hoarding as well. This was an adult child with a mental disorder, who grew up in this house with his mother. The likelihood of him hoarding and her not hoarding seemed to be a far stretch.
Eventually, I made my way through the living room and into the kitchen. There was at least 3 feet of trash covering the kitchen floor, preventing the refrigerator door from opening. After I was able to open it, I checked the dates of the contents. The newest date I could find was 4 years prior. They hadn’t been able to use this refrigerator in 4 years due to the amount of trash in the kitchen alone. Where did they keep items refrigerated?
After multiple days and over 32,000 pounds of items removed, I finally made my way into the mother’s bedroom. After moving a dresser away from the left wall, I noticed mold growing from the floor up to the height of the dresser. I swabbed the mold and sent it to a lab. The lab results came back and showed that the mold was toxic. I bet that was the cause of death.
I contacted the client’s friend and the public defender. I sent them both a copy of the lab report. The public defender was adamant about me not contacting the solicitor’s office. Against my better judgment, I did not contact the solicitor’s office. I did volunteer to be a witness in case they needed me for the trial. However, I did not get a call to appear in court.
If you get a call about hoarding and a solicitor’s office, be careful how you proceed. I would work closely with your client or point of contact. If your client is charged with a crime, speak with his attorney. Although you are there to help, you could end up making the situation worse by giving unnecessary and potentially incriminating information to the solicitor’s office. Your job is to mitigate the hoard, not defend your client. However, during any phase of the job, if you encounter anything that may help your client, document it thoroughly and report it to your client, POC or your client’s attorney. Since the cause of death had not been determined as of the time I started this job, the positive toxic mold test may have caused it. However, it could simply be a hazard in the house and played little to no part in her death.
I received a call from the Department of Veteran Affairs regarding a housing situation. One of their veterans was having an issue with a severe bed bug infestation. A pest control company inspected the property, but wasn’t able to guarantee their work for bed bug eradication unless the place had been properly prepped for bed bugs. They suggested following their bed bug prep checklist to ensure the bed bugs were eradicated; however, they couldn’t find a company that was willing to do the bed bug prep work.
At that point, my company had only completed a couple of bed bug preps. The client lived alone and had very little clutter in the home. The home was surprisingly clean but would likely benefit from a deep cleaning. The little clutter that was in the home could be placed into a storage unit on his property in his back yard. The pest control company chose to use a pesticide treatment and gave me a list of things that needed to be accomplished prior to the pesticide application.
We put on biohazard suits, placed an extra set of disposable booties over the built-in shoes (to ensure if the shoes ripped, the bed bugs would not be able to get in through the rip in the suit), disposable nitrile gloves, taped the gloves to the arms in the suit, then placed another set up disposable gloves over the first set. Biohazard suits are prone to rip under the arms, in the crotch area and around the shoes area, so these areas must be regularly inspected to make sure a technician doesn’t get bugs on them.
The job occurred in the winter, but with the amount of PPE we had on, it was still hot. We bagged all of the linens in the home, placed them into new, 55 gallon trash bags, tied the bags and took them to a laundromat. We dried the contents on high heat for 30 minutes each, then placed them into new 55 gallon trash bags, tied them, then returned them to the home. We placed the bags in the linoleum floor in the kitchen and inspected each bag for rips/tears (bed bugs from the home may be able to enter these bags though any holes).
We followed the checklist and moved the electronics into the shed in the backyard. We vacuumed each room, vacuumed the bed frames, vacuumed all 6 sides of the mattress and box springs and thoroughly vacuumed every upholstered piece of furniture. We pulled out all items touching each wall at least 12″ away from the wall. We removed the switch plate covers and outlet covers and vacuumed inside each. We removed all of the overhead light cover and vacuumed those as well. We found multiple dead carcasses and vacuumed those as well. We only used this vacuum cleaner for homes that had bed bugs, as taking this vacuum cleaner into a new home or office could contaminate the new area with bed bugs or eggs.
We submitted before and after pictures to the pest control company and the Department of Veteran Affairs and were told the home was now suitable for a pesticide treatment. We were informed that his dog was sent to a veterinarian and was informed that the dog had bed bugs as well. The vet treated the dog.
The pest control company treated the home a second time, waited 2 weeks, and re-inspected the home. After the inspection showed no signs of bed bugs, the client and his dog were allowed to move back into the home.
When working with multiple entities, make sure each of them is in the loop on each step. Most pest control companies have similar bed bug prep checklists, but they may have differences. Make sure you follow the checklist from the pest control company that is completing the work on that job. If you do not follow it exactly, you will likely get blamed if there are live bed bugs found after the treatment. Since everyone is working for the same goal, make sure the Department of Veteran Affairs is aware of the steps you plan to take and let them know if certain steps cannot be followed or need additional steps added. Many of the people you work with may not have any experience in these situations, so effective communication is critical.
Mike Young owns Palmetto Commercial Services, an extreme cleaning and hoarding cleanup company located in Columbia, SC. Mike has completed over 750 hoarding cleanup jobs and has worked extensively with DSS (Department of Social Services), APS (Adult Protective Services), CPS (Child Protective Services), code enforcement, the Department of Mental Health, the Veteran’s Administration, guardians at litem, executors of estates, and more. Mike has testified in multiple court cases where hoarding is involved. For more information on a hoarding task force in your area, Google “Hoarding Task Force near me.”