AUSTIN (KXAN) — “I’m devastated. Really just, this is nothing you ever imagine happens,” Laurel Patterson said Thursday.

She was joined by her aunt and attorneys while addressing journalists, a day after Austin Police said it found a body whom it believes to be her father’s, Paull Patterson.

“He was my everything later in life. He was a really good man. Growing up, he was my hero,” Patterson said through tears.

Patterson said she’s trying to focus on the silver linings: the ordeal has brought her closer to her family and restored her faith in the community.

A neighbor found 76-year-old Paull’s body, Patterson said.

“There’s some closure, even though it’s not what I wanted,” she said.

Police said Paull was last seen on Nov. 6, leaving Colonial Gardens behind an employee. Paull had dementia and had been staying at the secure memory care facility since May, according to Patterson.

Police said Colonial Gardens did not notify them of Paull’s disappearance for seven hours.

KXAN went to the facility to ask more questions about how Paull was able to leave and what accounted for the delayed reporting.

Manager Alan Bass refused an interview, but did email a statement, offering condolences to the family and stating the facility is cooperating in all investigations.

We as a community at Colonial Gardens are deeply saddened and troubled about the loss of Mr. Patterson, and offer our profound condolences to his family. Colonial Gardens wants to keep all of its residents safe, and to help achieve this, the facility will continue to cooperate fully with all authorities in the various ongoing investigations.

Alan Bass, Colonial Gardens manager
Colonial Gardens manager Alan Bass said these signs had been posted on the inside of facility doors but are now posted outside, too. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)
Colonial Gardens manager Alan Bass said these signs had been posted on the inside of facility doors but are now posted outside, too. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

The Texas Assisted Living Association spokesperson, Carmen Tilton, said a situation like this is rare, but when it does happen, it’s troubling to them as an association “and to the senior living community.”

The rules and regulations in Texas require assisted living communities to provide residents with as much community integration as is possible in a homelike environment. Seniors do not give up their autonomy when they move into a community. Independence must always be balanced with safety. Only assisted living communities which are Alzheimer’s Certified are allowed to have delayed egress doors. We cannot comment on the specifics of this circumstance.

Carmen Tilton, Texas Assisted Living Association

“This kind of an elopement leading to serious injury or death is considered on a federal level, ‘never.’ It should never, ever happen, because it is the most basic level of safety,” Amber Russell, Patterson’s attorney, said.

Russell said they can’t keep up with the calls they get across the state about neglect, which is the category of investigation the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) said this investigation falls under.

“The number of calls that we get for nursing home negligence is frightening,” she said. “We get so many calls, we can’t accept more than 5% of the negligence calls that we get.”

She said they’re seeing more instances of basic policies and procedures not being enforced.

“Really, the responsibility falls for each facility. Most of these facilities are for-profit facilities. So, they’re being run as businesses, and they’re making choices of what to prioritize, and safety has to be the priority,” Russell said.

She also said under state law, the maximum a family can get for suing a facility over a death like this is $250,000.

“None of the families care about the money,” she said. “But again, these are businesses and if there is no penalty for them on the other side, that affects prioritization.”

Russell said they plan to pursue this case to the fullest extent, once they are able to.

“We can’t file suit today, even if we wanted to. There’s a lot of legal hurdles that we have to jump through first,” she explained. “We want to get as much information for this family and to prevent it from happening to other families. We want to find out what policies and procedures specifically were violated. How can we get the word out to keep this from happening again?”

While Patterson waits for details about her dad’s death — like time, date and manner — she’s holding on to her last interaction with him — bringing him cookies on his birthday, just last month.

“His eyes lit up, and he was so excited,” she recalled. “I’m very thankful to have that last memory of giving him a hug, and he was in that state of just being so happy and so excited to see me. I want to hold on to that.”

HHSC said timeframes on its investigations depend on several factors, like evidence available to them.

Spokesperson Jennifer Ruffcorn said the investigation includes observing resident care and treatment; interviewing staff, family members and other residents; and reviewing documents to decide if and how the facility might have broken regulations and failed “to protect the health and safety of residents.”

“Penalties are based on the scope and severity of a violation. Any violation that results in harm to a resident is categorized at the highest level of severity,” Ruffcorn said.

She added facilities can challenge any enforcement actions HHSC takes against them for failure to comply with regulations, which can also affect the overall timeline of an investigation.