ALBANY - Some of New York's most vulnerable citizens will be protected by a hotline, special investigators and other measures aimed at improving a system marked by years of abuse and death among the disabled in state facilities.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders said Sunday they agreed on a sweeping reform which, for the governor, fulfills a major legislative goal. The deal was announced in time for the bill to be passed by the end of the Legislature's regular session on Thursday. Saying this issue is "personal," Cuomo had threatened to keep lawmakers in Albany beyond Thursday if the measure didn't become law.
Recent governors have been dogged for years by outcry from whistle blowers within the system and a chilling New York Times series that was published this year about abuse in the massive bureaucracy caring for 1 million people. The system cares for mentally and physically disabled New Yorkers of all ages along with those with what are defined as special needs, such as those resulting from autism.
The bill will include a hotline for workers and others to report abuse, a special prosecutor and an inspector general for the protection of people with special needs.
In response to a push by the Assembly's Democratic majority for greater independent oversight of the new "justice center" system, an advisory board will be established.
"This new law will help us protect the civil rights of the more than 1 million New Yorkers with disabilities and special needs who for too long have not had the protections and justice they deserve," Cuomo said Sunday.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said his need for independence in the system was addressed.
"The Empire State's system for the care and treatment of people with disabilities will be transformed," Silver said. "With the creation of an independent Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, parents will be able to get information on allegations of abuse and know that these cases are taken seriously."
For at least one advocate who lost a son in the system the political deal struck Sunday night isn't enough.
"Over 20 safety and abuse prevention measures, many that are in place in prisons, were never bothered to be introduced," said Michael Carey, who turned into a full-time advocate for reforming system in which his son, Jonathan, died in 2007. "This is not about protecting the disabled. ... It is more of the exact same of the fox guarding the hen house."
He wanted greater involvement by police and prosecutors outside of the state's executive branch to monitor the state workers and nonprofit agencies operating under state contracts.
Federal officials last year faulted the state Commission on Quality of Care & Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities for a lack of independence from the state agencies it oversees. The agencies themselves primarily do their own internal investigations of staff abuse and neglect complaints, while the commission's probes and findings of wrongdoing are referred back to the agencies.
The commission was created in 1977 after the Willowbrook scandal. Overcrowding, filth and abuse at Willowbrook, a state institution on Staten Island housing more than 6,000 mentally disabled children, led to a class-action federal court settlement and its eventual closure.
In May, Cuomo said there were more than 10,000 allegations of abuse against disabled New Yorkers in state-funded facilities last year.
Major elements of the bill include a special prosecutor and inspector general to investigate and prosecute cases of neglect and abuse. There will also be a 24-hour hotline run by trained staff, along with a comprehensive database to make sure abusive workers aren't again employed in other facilities, a frequent complaint in recent years. There will also be a study of abuse patterns and trends to guide training to avoid future abuse.
Two lawmakers with relatives with special needs made their fight personal.
Republican Sen. Roy McDonald said the bill will give "peace of mind to their loved ones ... I'm proud to see this legislation move forward and there's more to be done in the future to safeguard the well-being of these individuals with disabilities who are entrusted to our care."
Democratic Assembly Member Harvey Weisenberg is the father of a child with special needs.
"This legislation is my top priority," he said Sunday. "It is critical that we protect our most vulnerable citizens from abuse and mistreatment."