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Reform plan for state special-needs homes sounds good

June 21, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

David and Joanne Dechene are right about Sunmount and other state facilities for people with developmental disabilities. Clarence Sundram and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are right, too. But Assemblywoman Janet Duprey's concerns are also worth considering.

The Dechenes, of Tupper Lake, recently appeared in a video, talking about their son, David Jr., and troubles he encountered with two employees of Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office in Tupper Lake. Gov. Cuomo is using the Dechenes' video as one of several to advocate for a new Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.

David Jr. has been in state care for the last 30 years, and overall, the parents rated the employees who have worked with him at 9.9 on a scale of 1 to 10. But the 1 percent who failed weren't handled well, administratively.

One group home caretaker would hit David Jr. on the top of the head with a heavy ring, then kick him in the shin when he recoiled. When that was reported, the employee was moved to another state facility rather than being let go.

After the Dechenes moved their son to a smaller group home, he fell in the shower and had to be hospitalized. He wasn't supposed to be left alone at the home anymore, but three weeks later, David Sr. visited and found him alone, naked in the bathroom. The caregiver was in another room talking on the phone and didn't even notice the father's entrance.

Again, the employee was moved to another location.

Whistleblowers have said that when they told their higher-ups of abuse they had witnessed at facilities like Sunmount, they themselves were investigated, transferred or fired. There's also peer pressure not to turn in one's co-workers.

"The people that worked with these people would not turn them in because they were afraid of their jobs," David Sr. said in the video. "If a person turns another person in, they were shunned by everybody."

Mr. Sundram is the main man the governor turned to after The New York Times started exposing avoidable deaths, abuse and neglect in state residences for people with special needs. Mr. Sundram examined such facilities statewide and found inconsistencies across agencies and institutions, each having their own policies, punishments and employee background check procedures. Many even had different definitions for abuse and neglect.

Between 1978 and 1998, Mr. Sundram had helped create and then chair the state Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled, but now he thinks that commission has atrophied. He and the governor want the state Legislature to pass a bill to replace the CQC with the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.

The Justice Center would create the following:

one set of definitions for abuse and neglect

a 24/7 manned hotline for reporting abuse and neglect

a trained investigation group including special prosecutors to help county district attorneys who aren't used to handling cases like these

a registry of workers who have had problems in state human services agencies

for employees with records of abuse or neglect, a ban on working in other, related state jobs

a clearinghouse for employee background checks for human service agencies.

These seem like practical improvements. Although it's unclear how widespread the problems are, they must be fixed. The state has a responsibility to conscientiously care for these residents, each of whom is someone's son or daughter, brother or sister.

Also, any case of abuse taints the entire staff of facilities like Sunmount.

Working at places like Sunmount can be incredibly stressful - especially at its Center for Intensive Treatment, which houses people ruled unfit to stand trial for criminal charges due to mental or developmental disabilities. Residents sometimes give staff a hard time, too, especially at the CIT. Rising above that to provide good care is hard, but according to the Dechenes, the vast majority of staff members do. They shouldn't be dragged down by inconsistent policies and administrators that don't deal justly with abusive co-workers.

But is the Justice Center the answer? Assemblywoman Janet Duprey is wrestling with that question. She said she likes most of the reforms and was leaning toward voting for the bill, but she had hang-ups: about a new layer of bureaucracy, about it coming under the governor's control, about a non-separation of powers and about the lack of a price tag.

It's worth noting that since the Justice Center would replace the CQC, the end result would likely be no more bureaucracy than exists now - and one less ineffective agency. Also, how else could you achieve these inter-agency reforms?

Ms. Duprey is worried about the independent CQC being moved to the executive branch, but these human-service agencies are already in that branch. Plus, having an elected governor in charge adds popular accountability, whereas an independent agency is more separated from the will of the people.

She also worried about investigation and prosecution being done by the same agency, but that's not so bad, especially since elected county DAs would be able to trump Justice Center prosecutors. When a single agency is jury and judge as well as police and prosecutor - as with the state Adirondack Park Agency on enforcement matters - then you have a serious separation-of-powers problem.

But we agree with Ms. Duprey that legislators and the public should know how much the Justice Center is going to cost - at least to say, "no more than X amount in the first year."

So put a price tag on that bill and pass it.



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