Commissioner of the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) Courtney Burke today presented Governor Andrew M. Cuomo's new legislation to establish the strongest standards and practices in the nation for protecting people with special needs and disabilities. Governor Cuomo's bill will create a new Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, an initiative that will transform how the state protects over one million New Yorkers in state operated, certified, or licensed facilities and programs. Commissioner Burke presented the legislation at Nassau Community College.
The Justice Center will have a Special Prosecutor and Inspector General for the Protection of People with Special Needs who will investigate reports of abuse and neglect and prosecute allegations that rise to the level of criminal offenses. It will also include a 24/7 hotline run by trained professionals, a comprehensive statewide database that will track all reports of abuse and neglect, and a statewide register of workers who have committed serious acts of abuse who will be prohibited from ever working with people with disabilities or special needs.
"This bill puts forth unprecedented reforms that will transform how New York State protects and cares for people with special needs and disabilities," said Governor Cuomo. "This is exactly the type of agency that the patients and their family and friends deserve."
Commissioner Burke said, "In order to best serve our citizens with special needs, it is essential that we implement Governor Cuomo's proposals immediately. Through reforms like the Justice Center, the new special prosecutor, and strengthened criminal penalties for abuse, the Governor's plan will help the state protect the rights and safety of vulnerable New Yorkers."
Clarence Sundram, the Governor's Special Advisor on Vulnerable Persons, said, "The Governor's proposed legislation is the strongest and most comprehensive plan in the country for preventing abuse and neglect before it happens and for responding to reported incidents. It covers five of the state's health and human services agencies, as well as the State Education Department, and sets forth a clear and consistent set of standards to guide the behavior of employees in all systems. It provides a simple system for reporting allegations and a consistent response by trained investigators to all reports. Governor Cuomo is providing visionary leadership to reforming government's performance of one of its most important obligations -- protecting vulnerable New Yorkers. The Governor's proposed legislation will affect over one million New Yorkers and their families. The legislature should take swift action to enact this bill into law."
Deputy Secretary for Health Jim Introne said, "The Governor has proposed a plan that will make New York the national standard bearer in the protection of our vulnerable population. He has demonstrated his leadership in assuring the best possible care for New Yorkers with special needs. I thank Governor Cuomo for his strong advocacy on this issue."
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. However, the state has never had a consistent and comprehensive standard for tracking and investigating complaints or punishing guilty workers.
Governor Cuomo's proposed Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs will have primary responsibility for tracking, investigating, and pursuing serious abuse and neglect complaints for facilities and provider agencies that are operated, certified, or licensed by the following six agencies: The Department of Health (DOH); the Office of Mental Health (OMH); the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD); the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS); the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS); and the State Education Department (SED). The Justice Center will also absorb all functions and responsibilities of the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, with the exception of the Federal Protection and Advocacy and Client Assistance Programs that will be designated to a qualified non-profit.
Other components and responsibilities of the proposed Justice Center include the following:
An Executive Director, Special Prosecutor and Inspector General, and a substantial staff of trained investigators, lawyers, and administrators. The Justice Center's law enforcement branch will have concurrent authority with district attorneys to prosecute abuse and neglect crimes committed against such persons.
Creation of a statewide 24/7 hotline staffed by trained professionals to ensure that allegations of abuse are promptly reported to law enforcement and fully and effectively investigated.
Development of a register of workers who have committed serious acts of abuse who will be prohibited from ever being hired again in any position where they would work with people with disabilities or special needs.
Representing the state at all disciplinary proceedings relating to substantiated allegations of abuse and neglect.
Development of common standards for investigations and requirements to be used to train investigators.
Development of a Code of Conduct containing the basic ethical standards to which all individuals working with people with special needs and disabilities would be required to subscribe and would be held accountable.
Consolidation of background check procedures, including reviewing and evaluating the criminal history for any person applying to be an employee, volunteer, or consultant requiring a background check at any facility or provider agency operated, licensed, or certified by OMH, OPWDD, OASAS, and OCFS.
Providing an annual report to the Governor and the Legislature concerning its work during the preceding year that will include data on central register reports, results of investigations, types of corrective actions taken, results of its review of patterns and trends relating to abuse and reporting of abuse, suggested corrective actions, and training efforts.
Governor Cuomo's proposed legislation will also replace confusing and inconsistent definitions of abuse and neglect in various laws and regulations with a single consistent standard applicable to human services systems.
Under the legislation, a new level of transparency will be created for non-state operated facilities and programs licensed or certified by the state to serve people with disabilities and special needs. These entities will need to follow transparency guidelines based on FOIL for information requests regarding abuse or neglect of the people they serve.
The Governor's proposed legislation will also increase criminal penalties for endangering the welfare of people with disabilities and special needs and strengthen a prosecutor's ability to prove that any of these individuals in a facility operated, licensed, or certified by the state were the victims of sexual abuse. Under current law, crimes involving endangering the welfare of people with disabilities and special needs are classified as an A misdemeanor, an E felony, and a D felony bearing a top penalty of 2.5-7 years in prison. The Governor's proposal would create a new misdemeanor that would be easier to prove and elevate the three other crimes to an E, a D, and a C felony, raising the top penalty to 5-15 years in prison. In addition, the proposal provides that an individual in a residential facility cannot consent to sex with an employee, thereby removing the prosecutor's obligation to prove that any sexual activity was nonconsensual.
New Yorkers can learn more about the Justice Center at www.Justice4SpecialNeeds.com
The Governor's legislation was developed, in part, from recommendations outlined in The Measure of a Society: Protection of Vulnerable Persons in Residential Facilities Against Abuse and Neglect, a special report prepared by Clarence Sundram, the Governor's Special Advisor on Vulnerable Persons. A copy of this report is available at: http://www.governor.ny.gov/assets/documents/justice4specialneeds.pdf