ALBANY, New York — The agency established last year to protect the disabled in state-funded institutions has received nearly 25,000 reports of significant incidents, abuse, neglect and deaths in its first six months, though the public knows little about how many of those reports led to prosecutions, arrests and firings.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo two years ago, in proposing the new Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs — with 400 staff, a special prosecutor and 24-hour hotline — declared that after decades of abuse in state-funded institutions, a million disabled New Yorkers deserve to be "free from abuse" and "treated with dignity."
Data recently obtained by The Associated Press under New York's Freedom of Information Law show more than 42,000 hotline reports from June 30 through early December, including 14,747 significant incidents that can include injuries, 7,506 claims of abuse and neglect and 1,904 deaths.
Requested information on police cases was denied as "confidential," though a half-dozen criminal cases have been announced in news releases, including the firing of and felony charges last week against four group home workers on Long Island who are accused of prompting one disabled resident to attack another.
Also, after its first month of operation, center officials said they were already investigating 1,300 reports of neglect or abuse by caregivers, including 30 criminal investigations overseen by its own prosecutor. They have repeatedly declined to explain why they will not update those numbers for the first six months of operation.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said he saw no reason under New York law that such data shouldn't be disclosed as long as the agency has it.
People whose disabled children have been hurt in state care are suspicious about the broader silence, questioning whether the center is proving any better so far than the ineffective oversight agency that preceded it. They note that the number of abuse and incident reports remains in the thousands and question whether most abuse cases are simply referred back to agencies and group homes providing suspect care.
"There are mistakes that show neglect and maltreatment," said Mary Ann Goldberg, who is unhappy with an investigation that found nobody personally accountable for her developmentally disabled son's injuries last year at a Long Island group home. She said Timothy Stahl, 35, went to the hospital 15 times, nine with new injuries or infections. A state investigation resulted in assurances from the group home that it would provide better supervision of Stahl and training to deal with his seizures.
In 2011, federal authorities cited "major deficiencies" at the previous oversight agency, the state-run Commission on the Quality of Care, for turning over its abuse findings back to the state institutions at fault to be handled internally. That 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. But problems continued.
From 2008 to 2012, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, responsible for care and services for 126,000 disabled New Yorkers, reported more than 60,000 abuse allegations and 23,000 serious reportable incidents
New York Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, whose adult son is in state-funded care, said last week that he's still getting complaint calls from other parents and waiting for information from the Justice Center.
Michael Carey, whose 13-year-old autistic son was killed in state care in 2007, said he believes the situation may even be worse now because caregivers believe they must report incidents to the Justice Center in suburban Albany instead of local police, keeping cases from being properly investigated. He and Goldberg planned to come to the state Capitol to advocate for better measures ahead of legislative hearings Tuesday.
The state's written guidance to caregivers says they should report suspected abuse or neglect to the center. It also says possible crimes should be immediately reported to law enforcement.
"Every allegation of abuse and neglect is thoroughly investigated," Justice Center Executive Director Jeff Wise said. He declined to discuss Stahl's case or explain the nondisclosure of total criminal cases. When "deficiencies in care are detected," he said, the agency's oversight division "identifies corrective action" and works with the agencies to ensure the changes are made "expeditiously."