TUPPER LAKE - The state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities seeks to fire 15 of its employees in the Sunmount region in the North Country, 12 of whom are accused of abusing or neglecting patients.
The rest of them are being disciplined for other reasons.
The 15 employees are from throughout the entire Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office region, which includes Franklin, Essex, Clinton, Hamilton, St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties.
The New York Times has been running a series of investigative reports dealing with abuse in OPWDD facilities. In one story published in June, the Times accused Sunmount of having patterns of abuse embedded in its culture.
Since the series started, the OPWDD has been working to reform its practices in an attempt to reduce the amount of abuse.
As part of that initiative, the current administration has reformed the disciplinary procedures of the agency. When an allegation is made, an employee is immediately placed on administrative leave while an investigation determines if the allegation is true or false, OPWDD spokesman Travis Proulx wrote in an email.
If an employee is found guilty, OPWDD immediately removes that person from payroll and places him or her on unpaid suspension while seeking termination through the arbitration process, Proulx said.
Since the administration has strengthened its standards, investigations and penalties, there has been an increase in reported incidents, which Proulx said they expect to be temporary.
"Our reforms are demonstrating to the good workers on the front lines that we will hold bad employees accountable and seek their removal from the system," Proulx wrote.
He said workers who belong to the Civil Service Employees Association union ratified a consistent table of penalties in their recent contract that will establish set discipline for future cases. It will include incidents like egregious abuse that will be strictly terminable, as well as more progressive discipline for incidents that don't compromise the health and safety of patients.
"The table will remove the past arbitrariness of the arbitration process," Proulx wrote.
Paul Maroun, mayor-elect of Tupper Lake, the town's representative on the Franklin County Board of Legislators and a member of the Sunmount Board of Visitors, said he wants people to remember that sometimes Sunmount staff are accused of abuse but the accusations are found to be unwarranted. He said Sunmount staff do an excellent job overall.
"There's no excuse for abusing a resident at Sunmount," Maroun said. "Those people should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and should not be paid, should not be working at Sunmount. And the same thing, if someone is quickly found to be not guilty of anything, they should be restored to work immediately."