ALBANY - Three former whistleblowers who worked in state-funded institutions caring for the disabled said Tuesday that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's legislative proposal to create a new watchdog agency is unlikely to halt decades of abuses and cover-ups embedded in the culture.
The whistleblowers, who say they lost or quit jobs after reporting staff abuses, said telling higher-ups often meant complaints went nowhere and they themselves were investigated or transferred. They said Cuomo should get rid of an entire layer of administrators in the system who were responsible.
Susan McLaughlin, who was a consumer advocate for the former state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, recalled a disabled client at the Sunmount facility in the Adirondacks who in 2004 had his fingernails cut so short that all his fingers bled. She wrote top agency officials in 2005, attempting to report 15 specific cases of illness, injury or death of disabled people in state care and what she described then as "systemic problems." She later sued after she was terminated following 35 years with the state.
"They should take the top third of the administration right off the top," McLaughlin said, adding she got many anonymous calls from direct-care staff who feared losing their jobs, so she would report it. "And you need to bring in new people with a different philosophy."
Mary Maioriello began working at the O.D. Heck Developmental Center outside Albany, helping care for severely disabled adults, in 2010.
"Everyone else that was abusing disabled people were allowed and accepted to stay in their facility and given more opportunities to continue hurting these people that have no voice," Maioriello said.
She resigned in 2011. "Instead of adding another level of corruption with the same people, we need to start peeling away the levels," she said.
She recounted one mentally and physically disabled young man who was made to sit on a gym mat for hours, and hit with a stick when he tried to walk or crawl off it.
"The supervisor who was there called it a magic wand," she said.
Cuomo administration officials said they have already begun imposing changes, and the legislation will do more. Courtney Burke, head of the state agency responsible for the care of 126,000 disabled New Yorkers, said recently she is trying to fire nearly 200 employees as a result of "substantiated" allegations of abuse, beginning with immediate suspensions. Spokesman Travis Proulx said they have sought to fire at least two people Maioriello reported.
Wendy Webb-Weber, former chief operating officer for a nonprofit service contractor, said she reported abuse and neglect to her supervisor, issues like false medication records, and eventually contacted the nonprofit's board and the state.
"They did not address it," she said. Her position was eliminated in 2009.
Michael Carey, whose autistic 13-year-old son Jonathan was killed in 2007 by an O.D. Heck staff aide restraining him in the back of a van, said abuse claims need to go to the police and not be handled inhouse by the state, saying state oversight has not worked before. He and the whistleblowers gathered outside Cuomo's Capitol office Tuesday to make their case.
Burke, who took over the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities shortly after Cuomo took office in early 2011, said last week the effort to change the culture for those caring for people with intellectual disabilities, autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities now includes requiring new direct-care staff to have high school diplomas and to pass psychological and drug tests.
Cuomo has proposed a new investigating agency with about 400 staff to better protect about a million disabled New Yorkers under state-funded care through six state agencies and their contractors. His bill would establish a new special prosecutor and inspector general, a single point for reporting and screening abuse allegations in residential care and day programs. It would have a hotline, statewide incident database and a list of employees banned from working with the disabled because of abuse.