Each day, 52 cases statewide of abuse, neglect or worse involving people with disabilities under the care of professional staff are reported to authorities, according to the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
Some of these cases fall under the media spotlight, such as the 2007 death of Jonathan Carey and the alleged assault June 5 of a blind and autistic woman by an O.D. Heck Development Center aide in Mechanicville. However, most are investigated internally.
The state says that while approximately 65 percent of the allegations prove unfounded, it wants to reduce further the number of real incidents. That is why the OMRDD is launching a complete overhaul of the way it hires, trains, recruits and staffs facilities and investigates allegations of abuse or neglect.
Local experts and advocates for the disabled called the initiatives far-reaching and welcome.
Commissioner Diana Jones Ritter on Wednesday announced plans to create a division of work force and talent development and an office of investigations and internal affairs to push forward the new initiatives.
The goal is to put more investment into oversight, into strengthening relationships between clients and providers and into retraining and recruiting staff who want to work with the disabled, said OMRDD spokeswoman Nicole Weinstein.
“The idea is to build relations. We will work with voluntary providers and our staff and offer training,” she said.
The state system, consisting of public and private providers like the state’s O.D. Heck and local organizations of the Association for Retarded Citizens, respectively, employs some 90,000 people to assist 135,000 people with disabilities. About 25,000 of these employees work for the state.
Steve Holmes, adminstrative director of the private, nonprofit Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, hailed the OMRDD’s new direction. “They are talking about creating a culture that values people. Those are hard things to teach, but that is part of what they will be working on,” he said.
Holmes said the focus on building relationships is an excellent approach. “The most important thing, and the hardest to happen, is the relationships. We know their lives are enriched when they have people who care for them, have friendships with them, and are treated with respect. When people have relationships, they are much safer,” he said.
For people in institutions, relationships are especially important, Holmes said. “Many people in institutions do not have many people in their lives. So the staff become more important to their lives,” he said. “If staff have a relationship with that person, they are much less likely to do something untoward to that person.”
His agency plans to work closely to help the state foster the relationships.
Ritter said, “Everyone benefits by enhancing the staff-to-consumer relationships and promoting the highest level of dignity, respect and value between consumers and staff.”
The division of work force and talent development, she said, will help promote these values by developing mandated core training topics, refining competency training rates and improving the state’s crisis intervention techniques.
The state plans to work with the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare, Center for Intellectual Disabilities, in developing its new strategic culture, said the school’s dean, Katharine H. Briar-Lawson.
“This is a strategic overhaul of parts of OMRDD and how it will implement its programs,” Briar-Lawson said. “I think it is a timely and responsive set of action steps and I find it comprehensive and refreshing. Many states will learn from New York because many states face the same challenges.”
Briar-Lawson said the state will incorporate several strategies to identify potential problems in advance in order to devote more resources to them. They include developing risk appraisal profiles of state programs, developing a risk prevention strategy for each program and creating a system-wide abuse awareness campaign.
“It is possible to predict risk factors involved in behavioral challenges that need more resources and staffing,” Briar-Lawson said. “In providing more resources in risk assessment, we may be able to build more skills as well as strategies for addressing what may be predictable behavior.”
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