Tupper Lake mayor reappointed to act as liason between facility, community
TUPPER LAKE — The Sunmount facility is an influential and controversial pillar of Tupper Lake’s community. When village Mayor Paul Maroun was recently appointed to lead Sunmount’s Board of Visitors, the Enterprise looked into the importance of the position and the challenges Maroun faces.
Sunmount is a state-run center for developmentally disabled people. It employs hundreds of Tupper Lake residents and others, is home to hundreds of disabled people and has been the subject of several controversies.
Sunmount carries a lot of weight in Tupper Lake’s community and economy, but few non-employees can see what happens in the large facility at the edge of the village, or in its group homes scattered throughout the region.
Maroun has been a member of the board for around two decades and now leads the board for the third time. The Board of Visitors acts as a watchdog for the safety of all individuals working and living at Sunmount. It is the public’s main insight into Sunmount, providing appointed officials with access to the facility and residents, and providing the community with a source to address their concerns and complaints.
“It is an honor to be appointed,” Maroun said. “I’m very appreciative that the governor reappointed me because Sunmount is so important to the overall web of this community.”
Who lives at Sunmount?
The Sunmount facility was converted from a veterans hospital in 1965 and became a housing facility for the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.
According to the New York State Mental Hygiene Law MHY 1.03 22. (a)(1), “‘Developmental disability’ means a disability of a person which is attributable to intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, neurological impairment, familial dysautonomia or autism.”
A wide range of people reside at Sunmount or one of its group homes throughout Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis, Warren and St. Lawrence counties, with a wide range of assistance needed. Some residents do not require a lot, independently working, creating and socializing at Sunmount. Others require more assistance from employees.
In 1999, the Center for Intensive Treatment was introduced to Sunmount, bringing convicted people as well as those deemed unfit to stand trial for alleged crimes under the care of the facility. These people were facing charges of crimes — from shoplifting to assault — but never saw a verdict. The latter are not legally guilty, simply unfit to stand trial, yet some may have committed the crimes they were accused of.
The addition of the CIT shifted Sunmount’s role as a developmental disability care center.
Sunmount is also a workplace for hundreds of doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers, security and direct-care staff, who work 24/7 to provide for residents.
According to previous Sunmount employee David McMahon, the facility is a taxing place to work, with overtime shifts running end to end and burning out workers.
“You can’t plan one week to another,” McMahon said, “because you can never know when you are going to be coming home.”
Working such long hours causes mental strain on employees who are working with sometimes difficult and physical residents, causing situations where they have to make in-the-moment decisions after 24 hours of not sleeping.
“You start to lose your temper; you start to do things that you wouldn’t do normally,” McMahon said.
In 2016, eight Sunmount employees were convicted on charges stemming from altercations with residents such as third and second-degree assault and first-degree endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person. In a separate incident, two were found guilty of a cover-up involving first and second-degree offering a false instrument for filing and including false information on medical reports.
Four employees were acquitted of similar charges relating to these incidents.
Cracking down on abuse by employees is not simple. While situations of abuse do happen, according to McMahon and Maroun, Sunmount is overflowing with false accusations of abuse, which clog up the justice system and make it hard to separate fact from falsehood.
Residents abuse the reporting system, loading on several false accusations a day for personal and opportunistic reasons, such as voicing displeasure against the decisions of employees, according to McMahon and Maroun.
To monitor situations like these, a Board of Visitors member sits in on every incident review committee meeting, and the board’s president gets a copy of every incident report.
“We’ve got an excellent group of people who work up there,” Maroun said. “Once in a while, we get a bad one.”
Four years ago, under orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sunmount removed its internal review board and joined a statewide Justice Center, which handles reports of abuse.
“I don’t think it’s as efficient as it should be,” Maroun said of the Justice Center.
Employees can spend days or even months on administrative leave while their cases are reviewed. Meanwhile, their co-workers fill in with overtime shifts that can last 12 or even 24 hours.
Maroun believes the judicial process for investigating the truth of an allegation could be sped up to reduce the amount of overtime required of employees.
“If the [allegations] are serious in nature — if there are marks on someone’s neck, if clothes have been torn or there is missing drugs — that should be investigated,” Maroun said. “But a lot of these cases are just unfounded, but the people stay out three, four, five, six, seven days.”
Maroun’s focus is to cut down on wasted time in the investigation and hiring processes. A change made recently was moving physicals for new employees from Albany to Tupper Lake so as to bring new hires on staff quicker.
The staff is not currently full, and with them working around the clock, many positions will always have to be filled. Maroun wants to set up a series of incentives to bring more employees into the North Country and onto Sunmount’s staff.
“If you don’t have the proper staffing pattern, this overtime will get you in the end,” Maroun said.
Sunmount, along with OPWDD facilities across the state, has faced criticism for being too lax on whom it moves from secure housing into group homes in the community.
Village board Trustee Ronald LaScala wants Maroun to use his position as president of the board to ensure the safety of the people he serves as mayor of the village. Referencing the moving of registered sex offenders into residential Buffalo neighborhoods last summer, which caused public outrage, LaScala said he does not want the same situation happening in Tupper Lake.
McMahon says it is already happening here.
“Sunmount has a revolving-door policy; they just seem to be pushing them out whether they are ready or not,” McMahon said. “As a former employee, I know that some of these people [in group homes] are very dangerous sex offenders.”
In 2016, a Level 2 sex offender walked off the Sunmount property on three separate occasions, making it as far as 48 miles away from the facility to his hometown of Jay.
With Sunmount’s main facility situated directly across the street from L.P. Quinn Elementary School and bordered by residential neighborhoods, LaScala has urged Maroun to introduce a reverse-911 system to call neighbors and let them know when a resident walks out of the facility or a group home.
McMahon has approached Maroun several times to propose an ordinance banning Sunmount residents who were charged with pedophilia but never stood trial from living within a certain distance from playgrounds and schools.
Maroun says it would be unconstitutional to make such an ordinance against people who were never convicted.
According to the state Sex Offender Registration Act, “If the offender is under parole or probation supervision, other New York State laws may limit the offender from living within 1,000 feet of a school or other facility caring for children. Additionally, there may be local laws in a particular county, city, town or village that restrict where a sex offender may live.”
Registered sex offenders would be subject to such laws, but many of those at Sunmount never saw trials and are therefore not registered. McMahon wants a law that discerns based on record, not conviction. A law of this caliber would need special permission to align with the state constitution.
Maroun as president
LaScala said he believes Maroun will be effective as president of the board.
“Paul has gotten really reactive and proactive with some of the issues that are coming up that concern the village,” LaScala said.
While LaScala said he respects Maroun’s work as the village’s liaison with Sunmount, he believes the mayor of the village, who also is a Franklin County legislator and a member of state Sen. Betty Little’s consulting staff, is taking solely on himself several positions that should each be campaigning for changes at the facility.
“I kind of believe that three dogs barking is a little more of an alarm than one,” LaScala said.
Maroun, who has a cousin living in a Sunmount facility, will have the ear of the state OPWDD office in Albany.
“I can’t order the director of Sunmount to do something, but we can discuss things with her and her staff,” Maroun said. “We can go into any facility at any time, night or day … to see, how are the clients being treated? Do the staff have adequate protection? Are the fire alarms adequate?”
The board then reports what its members see and want changed to Sunmount Director Laura LaValley, the commissioner of OPWDD or straight to the governor’s office. LaValley, who lives in Tupper Lake and the OPWDD spokesman Scott Sandman declined to speak for this report.
“This Board of Visitors is one of the most active,” Maroun said.
The board, which is typically comprised of seven members, currently only has four and is actively searching for more.