At a hearing on Monday before New York State legislators, Courtney Burke, the new commissioner of the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, revealed a disturbing figure: About 40 percent of the allegations of physical abuse of the developmentally disabled at group homes and institutions in New York in recent months have not been reported to law enforcement authorities — even though notification is already required by law.
Burke also mentioned figures that seem to indicate some progress in reporting — and protecting — individuals with disabilities from abuse by staff since she took over the troubled agency in March: According to the New York Times, only 17 percent of allegations of physical abuse were reported to law enforcement before Burke began her tenure; now, some 60 percent are. Further, almost 88 percent of allegations of sexual abuse have been reported since Burke took her job, up from about 75 percent.
A New York Times series by Danny Hakim has detailed “lapses” — that seems too light a word — in New York state’s care of those with developmental disabilities. As Hakim says, “the state has retained workers who committed physical or sexual abuse, rehired many workers it had fired, shunned whistle-blowers and rarely reported allegations of abuse to law enforcement.” To address these problems, Burke is proposing legislation
…that would bar the agency from hiring people convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses; it would not prohibit employing other convicted felons. The bill would make it clear that an individual with a developmental disability receiving state services could not legally consent to sexual contact with a staff member; the measure is aimed at curbing sexual assaults.
In her testimony, Ms. Burke did not directly address what many critics see as one of the agency’s serious problems, its lack of transparency. The agency often cites state privacy laws for refusing to release even redacted copies of reports of abuse.
I can’t say that a parent feels too comfortable knowing that a child with disabilities who has — like my teenage autistic son Charlie and like Jonathan Carey, who was killed in 2007 when a state care worker restrained him in a minivan — severe difficulties in communicating could be “cared for” by individuals who have criminal records. Clearly we can do more to demand that our children who are among the most vulnerable are cared by staff workers who are not only appropriately trained and supervised, but screened for any past history of abuse or other issues.
The imperative of reporting and investigating abuses, and of documenting the histories of staff who have committed abuses, is underscored by a report in today’s San Jose Mercury News. Jerry Johnson, a special education teacher at a Vallejo, CA, elementary school, was arrested on Monday night on the charges of raping an 18-year-old woman who is described as “developmentally challenged” and with “the mentality of a 7-year-old.”
One way to keep our individuals with disabilities safe is by ensuring that abuses are reported as soon as possible and then immediately addressed so that the same mistakes, and the same abuses, don’t keep happening over, over and over again.
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Photo from the Jonathan Carey Foundation.
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