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Governor Cuomo to Create Justice Center
Governor Cuomo has proposed legislation to create a Justice Center (http://www.Justice4SpecialNeeds.com.) for the Protection of People with Special Needs. The proposal would bring together the abuse and neglect monitoring, investigation and oversight function of the gamut of state agencies charged with the care and protection of vulnerable persons under the egis of one state agency with the requisite expertise and independence to act decisively on their behalf. It would provide centralized reporting, common reporting standards and uniform definitions of abuse and neglect. It would also provide uniform standards for employee discipline, training and an employee code of ethics. It would establish a division of investigation and prosecution and operate an abuse reporting hotline which would be manned 24/7. Employee background checks would be consolidated under the Justice Center and, in addition to barring individuals with criminal records from working with vulnerable persons, it would also manage a statewide abuse registry to prevent anyone found guilty of serious acts of abuse from ever working with people with special needs.
The proposal has found broad support among advocates, providers and state officials. The Governor has called on the state legislature to move quickly to pass this legislation and in that regard the measure is expected to be law in the coming months.
The Justice Center proposal is based on the work of Clarence Sundram whom the Governor appointed to head the Commission on Quality of Care for the Disabled (CQC). The responsibilities of the CQC under current state law include the monitoring and oversight of a range of state programs for the disabled including the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), Office of Mental Health (OMH), Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse (OASAS), Office for Children and Family Services (OCFS), the Department of Health (DOH) adult care facilities and State Education Department (SED), with the exception of residential health care facilities regulated by DOH. Under this proposal these responsibilities would be transferred to the Justice Center.
The CQC’s responsibility for primary investigations of allegations of child abuse and neglect in Department of Mental Health facilities would also be replaced with the broader mandate of the Justice Center for oversight of the abuse and neglect reporting and investigation.
The Justice Center would be required to submit an annual report to the Governor and Legislature regarding the reporting, investigation and resolution of allegations of abuse and neglect that are reported to a Statewide Central Register, which would also be a part of this proposal. The CQC’s Ombudsman program currently operated by OPWDD would also move to the Justice Center.
By Daniel Lukens
The Justice Center Legislation will provide important protections for vulnerable people. The proposal reflects a thoughtful and balanced approach with regard to employee discipline and program management. It will provide standards where no standards currently exist. It would bring together the protection and oversight functions of all of the agencies serving vulnerable persons under one roof, with one common set of rules and with the requisite power and resolve to stand up for vulnerable people. In our view, it warrants the support of parents, advocates and our state legislators. Governor Cuomo, OPWDD Commissioner Burke and especially CQC Commissioner Sundram deserve our praise for this landmark effort.
What the Justice Center legislation will not do, however, is offer the people of this state a perspective on the overall quality of care and quality of life of vulnerable persons. Mandates for reporting and data collection, though they will be uniform across systems, they will not extend to persons living at home nor will they offer any comparative basis with systems in other states. And, though I appreciate that the intent of this legislation is to specifically address abuse and neglect in certified programs, what we must also consider are the broader interest of vulnerable people and the need to develop the base line data that will tell the story of how they live.
According to Governor Cuomo’s Justice Center documents: “ Last year, there were more than 10,000 allegations of abuse against New Yorkers with special needs and disabilities in state operated, certified or licensed facilities and programs.” These statistic were also included in his press release and they further assertions made in the press by the New York Times and other newspapers. They would suggest, or seem to suggest, that the state of New York, and in particular, OPWDD, is running a seriously failed system of care that presumably compares unfavorably with similar systems in other states. A more careful reading of the legislation and Sundram’s report, however, indicates that OPWDD as compared with other state agencies in New York, has the most inclusive definitions of abuse and neglect and the most rigorous reporting standards. And so we would ask: Is 10,000 reported cases reflective of the system’s transparency or the quality of it’s reporting standards? I would hardly think that the public would interpret it that way.
As a provider, I understand firsthand the problems with our service systems. Nonetheless, as a family member of a man with Autism who has lived in a certified residence for over 30 years, I am grateful for opportunities and the quality life that my brother has known, opportunities that he would not have found in other states. As a former direct care worker, what I have come to realize is that “systems” do not care for people. People care for people. People like my brother who come to care with medical or behavioral challenges struggle in care the same ways that they struggle at home. The difference is that instead of their families caring for them, they are cared for by paid staff whose qualifications include a high school diploma, whatever training that they receive from the agency or state program that they work for and, hopefully, a desire to serve their fellow man (or woman as the case may be).
Data collected on my brother, the number of reports, might suggest that he is not as well cared for as the other residents of his house because there are more reports on him. This is simply not the case. Moreover, the fact that our family never documented my brother’s almost daily problems at home, the absence of reported incidents with his family might suggest that he did better at home than he has done in care and that is certainly not the case.
Collecting information on allegations of neglect and abuse and any and all threats to the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable persons is essential to ensuring basic protections in certified programs. Robust reporting and inclusive definitions of abuse and neglect help programs to establish open lines of communication between people in care, staff and families. They encourage dialogue often on relatively minor issues before they become more serious problems and they encourage proactive solutions.
There are, however, potential dangers in the misuse of the reports.
People in care need to be safe but they should also have a life worth living and so we must ensure with equal vigilance that this information is not used in ways that run counter to the interests of the persons that they are presumably intended to help. If, for example, service systems assuage risk for vulnerable persons by containing their lives and limiting them to only the least risky activities or worse, if we, as a state, abandon our commitment to long term supports and eliminate the certified programs that we are collecting data from, then better numbers would come at the expense of better lives.
Vulnerable people are at risk of abuse but they are also at risk from a hardening of the public heart. As a parent advocate once said in the days following the Willowbrook scandal, “our job is to resurrect hope.” The public has to believe that the sacrifices that they make on behalf of vulnerable people are achievable and worth it if there is to be support for the programs and services that these populations depend on. And, though I would not suggest that we dress up the numbers to sway public confidence. What I am saying is that the public has a right to know what they are paying for and to that end the data and the reporting systems need to tell the whole story about what represents quality in the lives of people with disabilities and not simply account what’s gone wrong.
Cynicism, anger and disillusionment are an easy sell in our culture. Building faith in our public purpose on behalf of the member of society who depend on our good will is a lot harder but it is, in fact, what underpins the altruistic spirit that they depend on. No abuse should ever be tolerated but if in our discussion of it we help rationalize abandonment, then we add another injustice.
What I would want for any person with a disability or their family is the life that my brother has had in care. It is not a perfect life because people like my brother, by nature of their disability, don’t get perfect and that is the inherent injustice. What he has had in care are people in his life who care for him like he’s their brother and who work every day to the best of their ability on his behalf. I don’t think that I could ask for more.
While the politicians and the media beat their breasts, what advocates must demand is the the truth – the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The vulnerable citizens of our state need more than anger or retribution. Indeed, if we are to live the change that we hope to see in the world then we must be as invested in what we will do for the the good staff who provide care to vulnerable people as we are in considering what we will do to the bad ones that would harm them. Vulnerable people need thoughtful approaches that add value to their lives. They need to be seen as people and not as a problem to be dealt with by strong words or lofty assertions. They need us to tell their story – the one that includes their hopes and their dreams and which speaks with optimism and resolve to the best intentions of our state community.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Camp Venture agency.
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