State officials on Friday announced the gradual closure of four institutional campuses for the developmentally disabled over the next four years, with the O.D. Heck Developmental Center in Niskayuna slated to be the first to shut down, in March 2015.
The closure of the four facilities is part of an ongoing effort to reduce the number of people living in institutional settings throughout New York. State-run facilities now care for less than 1,000 residents, a marked decline from more than 27,000 living in such institutions 25 years ago, when the infamous Willowbrook State School in Staten Island was ordered closed.
“Our stakeholders and advocates look forward to the day when institutions are a part of New York state’s history,” Tiffany Portzer, a spokeswoman for the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement. “To date, at least 13 other states have no institutions, and another 10 have only one institution each. New York is proud to move one step closer to joining their ranks.”
The state also plans to close the Brooklyn Developmental Center later in 2015. The Broome Developmental Center in Binghamton is expected to be closed by March 2016, and the Bernard M. Fineson Developmental Center in Queens is scheduled for closure in March 2017.
The closures aren’t expected to result in layoffs. Portzer said all of the workers at the four institutions — including the 300-plus employees at the sprawling O.D. Heck facility off Balltown Road — will be offered opportunities for reassignment in state-operated programs.
The closures were lauded by some agencies, including the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, the New York State Association of Community and Residential Agencies and NYSARC Inc. Marc Brandt, executive director of NYSARC, said the closure of four institutions recognizes the imperative for creating a system where people with developmental disabilities can live within their own communities.
“The plan to close New York state’s developmental centers symbolizes another big step towards bringing to fruition the long-standing ideals of parents and families,” he said.
Others took a more measured stance to the closures, even questioning why the closures were taking so long. Michael Carey, whose 13-year-old son Jonathan was killed by an O.D. Heck aide in 2007, tempered any praise over the announced closures with his frustration over the protracted timeline laid out by the state.
“It’s great news they’re closing, but I’d say its extremely disturbing they’re pushing this out two to three years,” he said. “These facilities are extremely dangerous.”
Named after noted Schenectady Republican Oswald D. Heck — the last speaker of the state Assembly from upstate New York — the facility gained considerable notoriety in recent years. O.D. Heck has been the subject of two federal lawsuits, including one by the Careys that led to a $5 million settlement in 2011.
Jonathan Carey, who was autistic and had developmental disabilities, was living at O.D. Heck at the time of his death. Aide Edwin Tirado smothered Carey after the boy undid his seat belt during a community outing to Crossgates Mall in February 2007.
Last year, the family of another former O.D. Heck resident filed a federal lawsuit claiming aides regularly tortured and abused their adult son. The 15-page lawsuit lists a half-dozen workers by name and 20 other employees as a group who “promoted a culture of abuse” at the facility from the time the man called “K.C.” entered the facility’s care in June 2010 until his death in March 2011.
Workers allegedly beat the man with a wooden stick they referred to as “the magic wand,” confined him to a small blue mat for most of the day and stepped on his fingers when he tried to crawl away. The lawsuit is now in discovery and could ultimately go to trial.
Ilann Maazel, the attorney representing the family, said the impending closure of O.D. Heck is a step in the right direction, but one that doesn’t erase the facility’s tragic legacy. He said reports of abuse at state-operated institutions continue to surface — from physical abuse to gross neglect.
“Disability abuse remains a serious issue in facilities throughout the state,” said Maazel, who also represented the Careys in their lawsuit. “No matter the type of facility, the care has to improve dramatically.”