A new state agency established to protect an estimated 1 million New Yorkers with disabilities has logged more than 5,000 calls to its abuse hotline in the first three weeks.
The Justice Center for People with Special Needs, which opened June 30, is responsible for law enforcement and advocacy for individuals with developmental or mental health disabilities in state-funded or state-authorized care.
It has also established a confidential do-not-hire registry but hasn't yet listed anyone. State agencies and nonprofits will have to check the registry before making new hires.
Executive Director Jeffrey Wise said it's too soon to tell how many of the calls represent actual cases, and the center is getting multiple calls on the same incidents. Wise said the exclusion list for staff found responsible for serious abuse or neglect, and who are prohibited from being hired by the state agencies and their nonprofit contractors, is "a brand new list."
Some advocates have questioned the blank slate, noting one state agency responsible for care and services for 126,000 disabled New Yorkers, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, had reported more than 60,000 abuse allegations and 23,000 serious reportable incidents from 2008 to 2012. Old disciplinary cases are still being handled within the caregiver agencies.
"You want people to have access to the information, to follow up and to follow through," said Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, a Long Island Democrat and longtime advocate.
Last year, Weisenberg sued a state-supported nonprofit alleging that his disabled 54-year-old son Ricky was hit and verbally abused at a Long Island group home. The nonprofit fired the worker, who took a job with another provider and denied the allegations.
The new justice center is assuming oversight authority from the former state Commission on Quality of Care, which Weisenberg said brought forward few arrests or disciplinary cases. Instead, reported incidents were referred back for investigation by the caretaker agencies themselves.
"I want to make sure the parents and families and the victims of the abuse and neglect will have an ability to be participating in the government's running of this," he said.
The new agency has about 230 staff, including 73 from the commission, and a resident prosecutor/inspector general. Patricia Gunning, who fills that new position, was previously chief of the special victims unit for the Rockland County District Attorney's Office.
The call center operates around the clock with almost 80 staff. Forty investigators include a half-dozen sworn police officers. The chief investigator is Anthony Bruno, who was chief of investigations at OPWDD.
"The triage investigative group decides if it really amounts to abuse and neglect or it's something less," Wise said. "If it's something less, it usually gets delegated confidentially to the state agency involved for them to sort of make note of it and investigate."
Wise was the chief executive of the New York State Rehabilitation Association, representing nonprofit support and service providers. He said the new center will be as transparent as they responsibly can, including identifying trends, but the do-not-hire list won't be made public. The center is required to report annually to the governor and state Legislature. Parents and legal guardians retain access to confidential records about their own family members in state care, including incident reports and abuse allegations, he said.
Service providers are required by law to call the center or file an online report of abuse. Medical personnel, social workers and police are also mandated to report abuse. Agencies under its jurisdiction include the Office of Mental Health, Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, Office of Children and Family Services and certain adult homes and residential schools operated by the health and education departments. Its portfolio includes the statewide network of residential and day program providers licensed or certified by the state.
Providers hiring staff are required to check applicants against both the new exclusion list and a statewide registry for criminal background checks.