TUPPER LAKE - Local officials want to make sure problems that have recently come to light at Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office are fixed, but they don't believe the issues will lead to the facility closing.
"We're not getting a feeling that it's going to affect employment at Sunmount," said Dan Mac Entee, spokesman for state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury.
Mac Entee said the main concern is the health and well being of the people who live at the facility, which consists of a compound of large white buildings at the corner of Park Street and Hosley Avenue, and a large number of residential houses in neighborhoods all over the region.
The New York Times ran an investigative piece last week that accused Sunmount of having patterns of abuse embedded in its culture. The story chronicled issues with the treatment of residents at several of the nine large institutions that house developmentally disabled people across New York, run by the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.
While not the main focus of the story, Sunmount was listed as one of the places where troubling events had happened, including employees instigating fights between residents, an employee dumping condiments on a resident's head, and several employees using excessive force to restrain a 300-pound resident named Eddie Adkins who has a history of biting.
Mac Entee said one of the reasons things have gotten out of hand at many state agencies is the constant changing of governmental administrations, but he's confident that current governor Andrew Cuomo is showing strong leadership and can get things under control.
"I think some continuity would really help this agency and other agencies, and every agency is really grappling with the financial pressure," Mac Entee said.
Tupper Lake's representative on the Franklin County Board of Legislators, Paul Maroun, also sits on Sunmount's Board of Visitors. He noted how important Sunmount is to the Tupper Lake community, employing 1,700 people throughout its various facilities with a $70 million payroll.
"This is extremely important to the Tupper Lake area," Maroun said. "We have to make sure that we do things the right way."
That's why locals are concerned that the facility could be shut down. When Cuomo visited the facility last year on an tour of state institutions, ripples of fear went through the community that it would be shuttered. Some of the others Cuomo visited have been, including the Tryon juvenile detention facility in Fulton County.
But Maroun said he also isn't concerned about the Times investigation closing the facility. He said it showed that all the OPWDD facilities have problems, so it just means they need figure out how to solve them.
Maroun said the Board of Visitors, whose members act something like ombudsmen to the various homes in the Sunmount catch area, has been in regular touch with OPWDD head Courtney Burke to keep abreast of changes she's trying to make within the department.
"We're listening closely, and we're offering suggestions to the commissioner on how to overall make the system work better," Maroun said.
Maroun doesn't sit on the committee that reviews incidents, but he said there are often a number of incident reports for the committee members to sift through - sometimes hundreds. They can range from one person saying something to another person that the person didn't appreciate, so there's an accusation of verbal abuse, to the violent incidents the Times reported.
"The gamut ranges the whole spectrum," Maroun said.
Maroun noted that while half of Sunmount's residents are severely developmentally disabled, the other half have been ordered there by a judge because they're not mentally fit to stand trial for any number of charges, some of which are violent. Sometimes force needs to be used to control these people, he said.
He disagreed with the Times assessment that there's a culture of abuse, saying that while some of the employees have problems, the majority of them care for residents and are good at their jobs.
"You buy a bushel of apples, you're going to have a couple of bad apples," Maroun said.
In a state Assembly hearing this week, Sunmount employee and union leader Ed Snow testified that he is also concerned that the Times story cast a bad light on all OPWDD employees.
"Is the entire PEF membership spotless?" Snow asked in his testimony in Albany. "Probably not, but the overwhelming majority of professional employees in OPWDD treat consumers with respect and report abuse or neglect if they see it."
The state Assembly introduced this week a package of four bills that would help reform the OPWDD system through a few different actions. One would ensure that abuse and neglect investigations continue whether an employee resigns the position or not. Another would require the OPWDD to make at least three unannounced visits a year, up from one unannounced and one announced per year. A third action would identify a number of crimes that a person has been convicted of that would disqualify them from getting a job with OPWDD. The fourth step would make sure the DDSO ombudsman is independent of OPWDD by making them an employee of the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, rather than of OPWDD.
None of the bills have sponsors yet in the state Senate.