Many of us have followed with great concern and frustration the tragic stories of neglect, physical assault and sexual abuse against New Yorkers with special needs and disabilities. There are more than one million such vulnerable New Yorkers, and more than 10,000 such allegations of abuse were lodged last year alone.
Our collective concern is that protecting our most vulnerable citizens is a calling we all feel - not just government and provider agencies. Our frustration is that, despite frequent attention in the media, a comprehensive, meaningful and sustained response to this unacceptable condition has not been forthcoming.
The very caregivers who inflict violence on our most susceptible citizens have too often been left unpunished. Some who have been fired for abuse have even been allowed to keep working among the population by leapfrogging to different providers or agencies that have no knowledge of the employee's record.
Last week, however, Gov. Cuomo announced the proposal of a Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs. This legislation is without precedent and would establish the strongest standards and practices in the nation dedicated to protecting patients, rooting out and prosecuting abusers, and making sure they never again are able to work in the system. The many thousands of dedicated and compassionate caregivers who provide, year after year, sensitive and expert care and attention to those among us with special needs will also be protected by this new initiative, as the due-process provisions will ensure that they are not confused with the small number of bad actors who are identified and removed from their positions.
Specifically, the Justice Center will have an inspector general dedicated to investigating allegations of abuse and a special prosecutor who will see that abusers are brought to justice. This agency will also keep a database that will track abusers and bar them from working in a facility that cares for people with developmental or other special needs. The legislation is carefully crafted, however, to ensure that those individuals working successfully with the most vulnerable, whose criminal records are in the past and whose violations would not interfere with the safe and successful carrying out their duties, will not be denied such an opportunity. The Justice Center will also house a 24-hour hotline, which is independent of any provided agency, to report abuse. An additional important component of the new legislation will be extensive training of caregivers to ensure that they will have all of the tools required to successfully carry out their responsibilities.
We often hear of, or perhaps even experience, government not acting or not taking action quickly. The passage of this proposed legislation, in this session - built upon a year of extensive study by an international expert in the care of the disabled, Clarence Sundrum, with input from clients, families and bipartisan legislative support - will serve as an example of elected officials accomplishing both to ensure the safety of those with special needs and support dedicated caregivers on whom the most vulnerable depend.
Bob Ross is president and CEO of St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, based in Saranac Lake.