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A newspaper’s coverage of abuse and the enactment of Nicky’s Law are steps in the right direction

January 21, 2020 2 comments

One newspaper in Massachusetts has been shining a spotlight lately on the problem of abuse and neglect of persons with developmental disabilities in the state.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature took a strong step last week in barring abusive caretakers from working for providers in the system.

Yet these two positive developments also highlight the fact that the media in Massachusetts in general and the Legislature as a whole have to do more than they have been in recognizing ongoing problems in the care of persons served by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

As we have long maintained, these problems have gotten steadily worse as functions and services for the developmentally disabled have been steadily privatized over the years without sufficient oversight of the corporate provider-based system.

One newspaper’s systematic coverage and one important legislative victory appear to be the exceptions to the rule, which has generally been one of benign neglect on the part of the media and Legislature.

The media exception has been The Springfield Republican, which published an in-depth report on January 10 about a DDS corporate provider, Guidewire, Inc. The newspaper revealed, among other disturbing facts, that at a Springfield group home operated by Guidewire, staff encouraged residents to fight each other and awarded prizes including money, cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the article ran just a few days before the Massachusetts House unanimously approved a bill that would create a registry of caregivers found to have committed abuse or neglect. Such persons would be banned from future employment in DDS-funded facilities. The bill known as “Nicky’s Law,” which was passed by the Senate in October, is expected to be signed into law by Governor Baker within the next 10 days.

A few days before the Springfield Republican article ran, the same newspaper published a follow-up to COFAR’s blogsite report about the termination of a DDS contract with another DDS provider, the Center for Human Development, to operate two group homes in which care was found to be substandard. In that case, COFAR had first reported allegations of poor care raised by the foster mother of a resident of one of the group homes.

Last year, the Republican followed up on COFAR’s initial reporting on CHD, and ran a comprehensive article about the failure of DDS’s licensure inspection process to identify ongoing problems in the two CHD group homes.

Both the reporting by the Republican and in COFAR’s blog posts helped to spur an internal investigation of CHD by DDS. Last fall, the DDS Bureau of Public Integrity cited potential “systemic issues” across CHD group homes.

Guidewire details underscore the need for Nicky’s Law

According to the Republican. eight employees of Guidewire were fired after the “fight club” details were brought to the attention of DDS in 2011. But the employees were given the right to return to work at other DDS-funded facilities in 2018. And while Guidewire was subject to a corrective action plan and staff were retrained, no criminal charges were filed in the case.

To that extent, the Guidewire case underscores the need for Nicky’s Law, which would potentially have prevented DDS from continuing to employ those caregivers.

Persons applying for caregiver positions in the DDS system currently must undergo criminal background checks, which disclose previous convictions for abuse and other crimes in Massachusetts and other states. However, even when abuse against persons with developmental disabilities is substantiated by agencies such as the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), it does not usually result in criminal charges. As a result, those findings of substantiated abuse are not made known to providers or other agencies seeking to hire caregivers. That’s why an abuse registry is needed in Massachusetts.

The Springfield newspaper cited COFAR’s own findings last September in which we identified Guidewire as one of the service organizations in the state with the most abuse complaints filed, substantiated and referred for criminal prosecution.

More recently, we analyzed DPPC data on a per-client basis to control for size of each provider, and found that between Fiscal 2010 and 2019, Guidewire was third highest out of 75 providers surveyed in the number of substantiated abuse cases per client. Guidewire was third as well in complaints referred per client for criminal investigation.

But abuse and poor care are problems that go far beyond one provider. COFAR analyzed the outcomes of more than 14,000 abuse complaints in the Fiscal 2010-2019 period.

Rest of the media needs to examine these issues

The Springfield Republican’s reporting shows the good things that can happen when the media shines a light on issues and activities that are causing harm. But it usually takes a commitment and cooperation among several media outlets to place these matters on the agenda of politicians and policymakers in order to bring about real change.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the Republican, the mainstream media in this state has shown little interest in systematically reporting on the serious problems that afflict the care of persons with developmental disabilities in the DDS system.

Major investigations have been undertaken of abuse of the developmentally disabled in group homes by newspapers in other states in recent years. Those reports include multi-part exposes starting in 2011 by The New York Times, in 2013 by The Hartford Courant, and in 2016 by The Chicago Tribune.

The mainstream media in Massachusetts has yet to to pay more than passing attention to the DDS system. We have also not had any success in getting a response from The Boston Globe to our concerns about currently proposed legislation that would make the state’s process of investigating abuse of the developmentally disabled far less transparent.

Children and Families Committee has yet to demonstrate a serious concern about the issues

We are also trying to persuade the state attorney general and the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee to begin seriously looking at these issues. While we applaud the role played by the Children and Families Committee in getting Nicky’s Law enacted, the committee has yet to demonstrate a sustained commitment to examining and addressing the problems within the DDS system.

In 2018, the Children and Families committee held two informational hearings on abuse and neglect in the DDS system. But members of the general public were not permitted to present verbal testimony at either hearing, and the committee never followed up on those hearings with a report. It’s not clear what, if any, the purpose of those hearings was.

In the final analysis, media attention and the attention of legislators and policymakers are linked. Legislators, in particular, are not likely to act to address society’s problems if the media isn’t focusing on those problems. It seems we’ve entered an age in which the media’s attention is more fractured than ever before.

The enactment of Nicky’s Law is one example of a piece of legislation that the media did get behind. Yet, the enactment of that law is just a first step in what needs to be a comprehensive reform of the system.

Every now and then, a media outlet like The Springfield Republican gives us hope that there still are journalists out there who will go further than reporting on one bill and will examine the issues underlying the legislation.

Once the media focus is there, we think legislators and policymakers will act more systematically on issues of concern to those people they are supposed to protect — the most vulnerable people in society.

 

 

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