Posts Tagged ‘developmental services’

Our question to Secretary Bigby

December 12, 2011 4 comments

It was the same story over and over at a public hearing this past Friday, presided over by Secretary of Health and Human Services JudyAnn Bigby.

Speaker after speaker urged Bigby and her panel of EOHHS assistant secretaries and commissioners at the Agganis Arena at Boston University not to cut the budgets of their programs.  The hearing room was packed with some 300 people, many of them disabled, and many of them program providers.

Some of those testifying, such as Hang Lee of Multi-Cultural Independent Living Center of Boston and Paul Spooner of the Metro West Center for Independent Living, even urged increased funding for their centers — an additional $1.1 million in each case. 

SEIU organizer Stu Dickson (at table) testifies before EOHHS Secretary JudyAnn Bigby at state budget hearing on Friday.

A panel of advocates with the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers simply asked for the budget cuts to stop.  “We ask you to remind the governor (who placed $350 million in the state’s rainy day fund earlier this fall) that it’s still raining,” said Gary Blumenthal, president of the organization.  Ten thousand families are without support services from the Department of Developmental Services, among the other results of years of budget cutting, he said.

But it doesn’t seem Bigby will be able to do much to push back against the cuts, much less give Lee and Spooner additional funding,  if the governor’s budget people decide to take aim once again, as they’ve done all along, at critical DDS programs.  Despite an uptick in state revenues that have brought those revenues back to the levels of Fiscal Year 2008, prior to the nation’s economic meltdown, Bigby stated in a notice sent out prior to Friday’s hearing that: 

FY 13 will be challenging and require cuts and reductions and the need for the Administration to make difficult decisions.

Sounds like Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez may have already told Bigby to prepare for the worst.

Yet, despite the continuing bad budget news, most of those at the portion of Friday’s hearing devoted to DDS issues still apparently retain the faith that the administration’s plan to close four state developmental centers will somehow rescue them.  Several speakers praised Bigby for her efforts to phase down the Fernald, Monson, Templeton, and Glavin centers, apparently hoping that the budgetary “savings” in doing so will be directed to their programs.

Since FY 09, the administration has cut the developmental center line item in the state buget by more than $45 million.  But, as I reminded the audience (including Secretary Bigby) when I got my three minutes to speak, we’ve seen no evidence thus far that the community line items have benefited from the  cuts in the developmental center account.

Since FY 09, cuts in the community-based accounts include reductions to adult family supports (26.9 percent cut), community transportation (17.6 percent), community day and work (3.8 percent), and Turning 22 (35 percent).  As the ADDP has pointed out, direct care workers in the DDS community system haven’t gotten a raise in their relatively meager pay and benefits in four years.

Meanwhile, the list of people waiting for community-based residential care in the state has only grown longer as the administration has transferred residents of the developmental centers to community placements.  “Where is the promised expansion of the community system” that was supposed to happen as a result of the developmental center closures? I asked Bigby in my testimony.

Later, I spoke to an EOHHS fiscal executive at the hearing and got no answer to my question from him either.

One of the few at the hearing who understands the extent of the negative impact the developmental center phase-downs have had so far is Stu Dickson, a DDS service coordinator and an organizer with the SEIU Local 509 state employee union.  Dickson urged Bigby to restore $5 million to the DDS administrative account, which funds the service coordinators, who arrange for and monitor services for community-based clients.

Dickson later said that despite the ongoing closures of the four developmental centers, DDS has not assigned any additional service coordinators to the community system.  The department has repeatedly laid off the coordinators, whose caseloads have grown to nearly unmanageable levels.

Our question to Secretary Bigby and to the opponents of the developmental centers remains: What has the administration done so far, and what will it ever do, to benefit the community system through the developmental center closures?

Justice elusive in assaults of the intellectually disabled

March 14, 2011 14 comments

When Sheila Paquette found out her intellectually disabled brother had apparently been viciously assaulted while on an outing from his group home last June, she had no idea of the long road she would be traveling to seek justice in the case.

What she — and we at COFAR as well — have learned is that there often isn’t a lot of interest among law enforcement authorities in prosecuting cases of abuse of the disabled, or in the mainstream media in reporting on it.  Paquette is a COFAR member and president of the Advocacy Network, a COFAR affiliate, which advocates on behalf of persons with intellectual disabilities in Massachusetts. 

Paquette’s brother, John Burns, was allegedly assaulted by John Saunders,  a group home staff worker, who allegedly poked his fingers in both of Burns’ eyes while he was toileting Burns.  The alleged incident occurred in the late morning at a vacation house on Cape Cod that was rented by the Center for Human Development, a state contractor operating Burns’ West Springfield-based group home. 

Burns was not examined by a doctor until the following day, when he was taken, at Paquette’s insistence, to Noble Hospital in Westfield.  Paquette said she was told by the medical staff there that Burns’ black eyes “were consistent with somebody taking their fingers and shoving them right into his eyes with sufficient force to cause blood to pool.” 

In an article in the Advocacy Network’s Fall 2010 newsletter, Paquette  wrote that she took the unusual step some three weeks after the alleged assault of personally filing a felony charge against Saunders of Assault and Battery on a Disabled Person.  “Until I filed the charge myself, the situation wasn’t taken seriously by the law enforcement authorities,” Paquette contends.

Photo taken of injuries to John Burns' eyes

Paquette isn’t alone in questioning our society’s commitment to ensuring justice or safety for persons with intellectual disabilities.   The New York Times reported yesterday that an inquiry by the paper found that New York State’s group home system of care “operates with scant oversight and few consequences for employees who abuse the vulnerable population.”

 An investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer described “a statewide law enforcement system (in Ohio) that routinely fails to investigate and punish those who abuse and neglect mentally retarded citizens.”   There’s not much reason to assume the situation is any different in Massachusetts.

Paquette said the alleged assault of her brother was witnessed by his  roommate, who said the incident was entirely unprovoked.   Later in the day, Burns and his roommate were driven back to West Springfield by another staff member of the group home.   Paquette said her brother  had to sit in the back seat with Saunders, the alleged perpetrator, the whole way. 

Paquette wrote that she was later told informally by an investigator that her brother spent the night in his group home moaning and crying.   But it wasn’t until he was sent the following day to his regular day program that someone from the program called Paquette’s other brother, Jim, who shares guardianship with her.  The caller said John Burns had two black eyes and was being sent back to his residence.

That was the first Paquette had heard about the injury to her brother.  She said she gathered her camera and a notebook and went to the group home to find her brother indeed with two big black eyes.  It was then that she began to experience the  first of many frustrations with the state’s system for responding to reports of abuse of the intellectually disabled.

After examining her brother, she asked the house manager to report the injury to the police and the Disabled Persons Protection Commission.  But when a police officer arrived at the house, he said he couldn’t investigate the incident because it had occurred in another town, outside his jurisdiction.

The DPPC was called immediately to investigate.  But the chronically under-funded agency handed the investigation over to the Department of Developmental Services (which funds the contractor running the group home).  

Fortunately, Paquette said,  the management of the group home did take the situation seriously.  Both the house manager and his supervisor questioned Burns’ roommate on separate occasions about what he saw, and were convinced his description of the event was consistent and credible.  Burns’ roommate is intellectually disabled, but is able to communicate.  CHD fired Saunders immediately, based on the assault allegation.

Nevertheless, the system has been slow and inefficient in tracking Saunders down.  Saunders failed to show up in Falmouth District Court for a pre-trial hearing that had been scheduled in October.   He is currently free on bail and is currently scheduled to appear in court on March 28.

In the meantime, Paquette has gotten little information about the case, she says, from the investigating authorities.  The DPPC, for instance, will not release the report done on the incident by DDS even to her because the matter is under criminal investigation.

“I’ve gotten nothing in writing from DPPC and nothing from CHD,” Paquette says.  “The DPPC says they can’t release anything to me because it’s in criminal court, but it’s in court only because I happened to file the charges.

“What did the DDS find out about this case?” Paquette adds.  “What did CHD write up?  If everyone in those agencies has seen those reports, why not  the victim, or at least why not me, who is the victim’s voice?  It’s almost surreal.  It’s just like fog.  I’m trying to stay calm, but I find myself getting more and more irritated.”

At COFAR, we’ve also been frustrated in trying to get media coverage of this case.  Although we notified the media around the state prior to a pre-trial hearing for Saunders that was scheduled for March 3, no one showed up to cover the hearing, and nothing appeared in any media publication about it.

Paquette said her goal isn’t “to put someone in jail for 30 days,  it’s to have a jury hear this case, to let people know about this problem (of abuse of the intellectually disabled),  and to make sure agencies check on their employees and make sure they can fire them if they are causing these types of problems.”

We all know that the media is facing its own financial issues and is cutting back on its coverage of issues in all facets of society.  Yet, in New York and Ohio, newspapers have recognized the importance of the problem of abuse of the disabled.  

After we sent follow-up emails to some local newspapers in the Cape Cod (location of the pre-trial hearing) and Springfield areas (location of Burns’ group home), we heard back from the editors of The Cape Cod Times and The Daily Hampshire Gazette.  We were told by the Cape Cod paper’s editor that their news editor is “considering”  a story about the incident that would run around the time of the next court date.  The editor of The Gazette said somewhat apologetically that West Springfield is outside of that paper’s circulation area, but otherwise, “we would have covered this type of story.”

The Springfield Republican initially assigned a reporter to the story, but nothing has appeared in the paper, and neither the reporter nor the executive editor have responded to our follow-up emails about the matter. 

Paquette noted, by the way, that 15 years ago, her brother was badly injured by a house manager in a different residence in Westfield.  At that time, The Boston Globe sent a reporter all the way out to Westfield to interview her, and Geraldo Rivera sent a television reporter as well.  Times have apparently changed.

Among the issues Paquette would like to find out is why the firm running the day program, in particular, didn’t bring her brother to the hospital immediately, but rather just sent him home after observing his black eyes. 

She also wants to know whether a State Police unit attached to the DPPC is conducting its own investigation of the case, separate from the Falmouth District Attorney’s Office.   It was only after she filed the charge  that the DPPC sent a Massachusetts State Trooper to her home to interview her, Paquette says. 

Paquette believes her decision to personally file the charge took many people by surprise.  “I don’t think it occurred to anyone I would go and file charges myself,” she says.  “I believe everyone was waiting around for DPPC and DDS to go do whatever they do.”  She said she was told by a DDS investigator that had she left the matter entirely in that agency’s hands, “this more than likely would have taken two years for this to get to the criminal court.  I short circuited the process, she says.”

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