When Governor Cuomo introduced what he calls the Justice Center for Protection of People with Special Needs, he said it would establish the “strongest standards and practices in nation”. The new agency would employ a staff of special prosecutor and an inspector general to pursue allegations of abuse of the mentally and physically disabled in the care of the state. The bill would increase penalties for those convicted. It would also set up a 24-hour hotline to report suspected abuse, and create a statewide database of workers convicted of abuse to prevent them from ever being hired again.
Cuomo said at the time that the legislation will be his number one priority for the end of the legislative session.
“This is the most important, and this is the most critical,” Cuomo said. “It affects one million people.”
The reforms are in response to a New York Times series that found widespread abuse at group homes and other state- run facilities, with offenders rarely disciplined.
Cuomo’s plan was quickly approved by the Republican led State Senate, but Democrats in the Assembly are expressing some reservations. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he’s concerned that the investigative process is not independent enough.
“We have concerns about it obviously it being a totally internal process,” said Silver. “And that there is no outside review.”
Silver says that those who complain about abuses they might witness while working at a state facility would have to report them to someone who also works for the Cuomo Administration.
Silver spoke just before addressing an Assembly sponsored forum on disabled rights issues. The Assembly planned to pass a package of bills, but Cuomo’s Justice Center proposal is not among them.
The Speaker says he’s talking about his concerns with the governor, and expects that some kind of compromise will eventually be reached.
Disabled rights advocate Michael Carey was also at the event. Carey’s autistic 13 year old son Jonathan was killed while in the care of a state center for the developmentally disabled. His caregiver was convicted of manslaughter for suffocating the boy in the back seat of a van while another colleague watched and did nothing.
Carey who, has advocated for systemic reform to prevent abuse of disable children, is highly critical of Cuomo’s proposal. He calls it “the fox guarding the hen house”, and says it fails to prevent the “rampant abuse of the disabled”.
“This is not an independent agency and it’s not about protecting the disabled,” Carey said. “It’s the exact opposite. It’s about protecting the state against lawsuits”.
Carey says he told top Cuomo administration officials about his concerns, but his views were not heeded.
“I gave advice and almost all of it was blown off,” Carey said.
Assembly Republican Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who also attended the Assembly forum, says he too has some concerns about the governor’s bill.
“The intent of the governor’s bill is the right intent,” Kolb said. “But now we’ve got to look at the devil in the details.”
In a statement, Cuomo’s deputy secretary of Health, James Introne says the new agency will be independent and accountable. He says they’ve already begun the process to create an independent not-for-profit watchdog to monitor the system. And he says the legislation calls for incident review committees for every provider of care to the disabled. They would include representatives of families, consumers and advocates, and would be empowered to review the adequacy of investigations and propose changes to prevent similar incidents in the future.