NY Files: Caretakers, not agency, probe most disabled deaths

January 13, 2016 By Michael Virtanen Associated Press
In this photo taken on Monday, the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special needs building is seen in Delmar, N.Y. The Justice Center declined to investigate most of the nearly 1,400 deaths of developmentally disabled people in state care in the past two years, leaving the majority of investigations to the caretaker facilities themselves, according to newly released records. AP Photo/Mike Groll
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The agency responsible for protecting those with special needs declined to investigate most of the nearly 1,400 deaths of developmentally disabled people in state care in the past two years, leaving the majority of investigations to the caretaker facilities themselves, according to newly released records.

An advocate who sought the documents’ release under the state’s open-records law said they indicate that the Justice Center, established more than two years ago by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be the primary investigative agency for possible cases of abuse and neglect in state care, is simply not doing its job.

“Enough is enough. People with disabilities are not subhuman beings,” said Michael Carey, who became an activist after his disabled son was smothered by a state worker in 2007.

The records showed that of the 1,381 developmentally disabled people who died in state care from June 30, 2013 to May 31, 2015, just six deaths were investigated by the Justice Center. Four deaths were investigated by the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), which is in charge of state services for those with intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and other neurological impairments. The rest of the investigations, 1,371 of them, were left to the caretaker facilities where those deaths occurred.

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State officials disputed Carey’s allegations and cited additional data not included in those records.

Justice Center spokeswoman Diane Ward said the center has actually investigated 71 deaths of developmentally disabled people when there was alleged or suspected abuse or neglect, closing 65 cases so far and confirming abuse or neglect in 26.

“The vast majority of deaths reported to the Justice Center occur from natural causes like disease or complications of aging, and these do not require further investigation,” Ward said. A team of nurses and investigators examines every death to determine if abuse was involved, and local police and prosecutors are notified of all those, she said.

OPWDD spokeswoman Jennifer O’Sullivan said all deaths of developmentally disabled individuals receiving state services are investigated by OPWDD or by the nonprofit or state facility providing services, and all are reviewed by a trained clinician.

“Any time there’s reason to believe a crime has been committed, law enforcement officials are notified,” O’Sullivan said.

Cuomo pushed through legislation in 2012 to create the Justice Center following a series of New York Times reports that documented horrific cases of abuse and neglect, with investigations usually left to the caretakers.

Carey said the records show a pattern is repeating itself: Nearly all untimely deaths of disabled people in state care are routed to the Justice Center, and the vast majority of the investigations are left to the caretakers.

Carey is pushing for a law that would require serious incidents and untimely deaths in state care to be reported to local police from the start by calling 911, instead of the Justice Center.

While the latest records dealt only with the 128,000 New Yorkers with developmental disabilities under state care, the broad jurisdiction of the Justice Center encompasses 1 million people, including addicted, mentally ill and young New Yorkers in state care.

Justice Center officials said recently that out of this total group they had investigated 132 allegations of abuse and neglect among 10,000 deaths reported over two years, substantiating 34 cases and prosecuting one.

In the lone prosecuted case that involved a death, a nurse admitted sleeping on the job at a group home in suburban Syracuse, leading to the death of a 25-year-old developmentally disabled man who received inadequate oxygen overnight. Tanya Lemon pleaded guilty last year to endangering the welfare of a disabled person, lost her nursing license and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The Associated Press reported in October that Justice Center investigations rarely result in criminal charges. The agency has received more than 25,000 allegations of abuse and neglect by caretakers since 2014 and substantiated about 7,000 of them, with just 169 cases — less than 2.5 percent — resulting in criminal charges.

The Justice Center’s Ward explained that a common thread in cases in which substantiated findings were made, but no one was arrested or prosecuted, is that staff did not follow protocol, which may have led to a dangerous or life-threatening situation. She offered the example of someone stealing food and choking on it, and a staff member failing to perform life-saving procedures.

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