Government agencies policing themselves seldom works, but perhaps nowhere has it worked less well than with New York state’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). For many years people in its own facilities or state-funded private ones that it licenses have quietly suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of their caregivers, while agency officials ignored, minimized or, worse, covered it up.
Even when reforms have been attempted, such as Jonathan’s Law in 2007, officials have been able to undermine them. A bill signed this week by Gov. Cuomo is aimed at making that law work the way it should.
Jonathan’s Law was named for a 13-year-old autistic boy killed by his caregivers at the O.D. Heck Center. For the first time, it said that families must be notified of possible abuse, and be given access to incident reports and investigative records.
This should have made it easier for families to pursue lawsuits or go to the police in cases where a crime was apparently committed. Those actions, which the agency has rarely taken on its own, are necessary not only to ensure justice for the victims and their families, but to hold the abusers and their enablers responsible and prevent future abuse by the same or other staff members.
Unfortunately, the law contained ambiguous language prohibiting the “further dissemination” of such records. And agency officials used it to intimidate families into keeping their secret — by stamping in large bold letters “Confidential — Do Not Disclose” on the documents.
The bill signed by Cuomo eliminates any ambiguity and clarifies the Legislature’s intent by specifically excluding from the “further dissemination” prohibition certain groups, including health and mental health professionals, lawyers and police. Families can share the records with them.
This is just one example of how difficult it is to reform a dysfunctional system. Little has changed since 2007, or 2011, when The New York Times did a yearlong investigation revealing widespread allegations of abuse in state-funded facilities for the disabled. There were 10,000 such allegations in 2011.
Cuomo did create a new agency last year, the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, that opened for business June 30, 2013. It is supposed to track, investigate and prosecute allegations of abuse (not just in OPWDD facilities but also in those run by the Office of Mental Health, Office of Children and Family Services, Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, Education Department and Health Department). Among other things, it will operate a 24/7 abuse hotline, do criminal background checks for prospective hires, and maintain a statewide registry of those who have committed serious acts of abuse. People on the registry will be kept from ever working with the disabled again (in the past, they have routinely been transferred or given new jobs).
These steps are encouraging, but more needs to be done to prevent and punish abuse in state facilities. Such as surveillance cameras. And more police involvement. And more skills and training before hiring. And agreements with the unions that will allow for easier firing.
There’s a long way to go before anyone can feel confident about the safety and security of our most vulnerable citizens in state facilities.