Jonathan Carey, a 13-year-old autistic boy who was living at the Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center outside Albany, NY, was crushed to death in the backseat of a car by one of his caregivers on an afternoon in February 2007, while the driver of the car looked on through the rearview window and said nothing. Abuse against children like Carey was common in O.D. Heck, which is one of nine large institutions in New York that house the developmentally disabled.
A long piece in the New York Times by Danny Hakim details the myriad of abuses in these institutions, seven of which have failed state health inspections since 2005. This is despite the fact that the state and the federal government provide $1.4 million annually to care for the residents of O.D. Heck. I encourage you to read the piece in full, because it sheds light on an astonishingly inhumane system, where vulnerable children and adults are abused by unqualified workers, who have even bragged on Facebook about “beating retards.” Agencies often refuse to take complaints seriously, either from workers who are horrified by the conditions, or residents who suffer abuse.
“I’ve never seen any outfit run the way this place is,” said Jim Lynch, a direct-care worker in Brooklyn, is quoted as saying in Hakim’s article. “You report stuff, and then you get retaliated against. They want everything kept quiet. People that are outspoken attract the heat. I don’t know who to talk to when I see a problem. Nothing ever gets done.”
While at a previous institution, a residential school, Carey had suffered further abuses. He was “neglected, inadequately fed and left to lie naked on a urine-soaked bed,” while “school staff did things like withholding meals because of poor behavior and covering his window so he couldn’t look out.” One of our Care2 bloggers, Kristina Chew, has written movingly about the need for better care for developmentally disabled children and adults who will need some sort of support for their entire lives.
But communal living in a safe, nurturing space seems to be far from the reality, at least in New York. Workers are, according to Hakim, unfit for duty, showing up drunk to work. Others have criminal convictions or are high-school dropouts. There was little tangible oversight of the workers, who routinely beat the residents.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced steps to tighten regulations on workers in homes for the disabled. But there is still much that remains to be done. And this is something that we all need to care about. While it’s easy to leave it to parents, caregivers, and friends of developmentally disabled children and adults to pursue advocacy and demand swift and dramatic changes, this is an issue that affects all of us, even if it doesn’t touch our personal lives.
After all, what does it say about us as a society if we allow any of our citizens to be neglected and abused like Jonathan Carey and the residents of any of these large institutions? It’s easy, but not ethical, to turn a blind eye. And this is a human rights abuse in which we are all implicated.
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