Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today unveiled new legislation to establish the strongest standards and practices in the nation for protecting people with special needs and disabilities. Governor Cuomo's legislation 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.
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 is about safeguarding the civil rights of the more than one million New Yorkers with disabilities and special needs who for too long have not had the protections and justice they deserve," Governor Cuomo said. "The creation of a Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs will give New York State the strongest standards and practices in the country for protecting those who are often the most vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment. I urge the Legislature to speedily pass this bill and give people with special needs and disabilities a new level of protection and service in our state."
Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos said: "The allegations of abuse and neglect of individuals in State-run care are very serious. In light of this, the Governor has put forward a package of thoughtful reforms that recognize the importance of protecting New York's most vulnerable citizens and providing peace of mind for the family, friends and loved ones of those affected. Under the leadership of Senator McDonald, the Chairman of the Senate's Committee on Mental Health, we are committed to working with the Governor and the Assembly to address this issue as soon as possible."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said: "The greatest measure of the character of a society is how well it cares for and protects its most vulnerable citizens. That is why the Assembly last year conducted a series of statewide hearings to examine the abuse of individuals with developmental disabilities that occurred at group homes and institutions throughout New York. The Governor has outlined a plan to inject much-needed accountability into the system for the care of individuals with developmental disabilities and to eliminate abuses and we support the overarching goals of the proposed legislation."
Clarence Sundram, the Governor's Special Advisor on Vulnerable Persons, said, "Today, Governor Cuomo announced a proposal for New York State to establish the most comprehensive standard in the nation in regard to protecting our special needs population. This landmark legislation proves that the Governor is a leading advocate for one of New York's most vulnerable communities. If passed, this initiative has the capability of transforming the way we protect over one million New Yorkers with special needs who partake in State supported programs."
Deputy Secretary for Health Jim Introne said: "Thirty-five years ago, Clarence Sundram was a central part of reforming New York's system of care for people with special needs that followed Governor Carey's signing of the Willowbrook Consent. The reforms being proposed by Governor Cuomo today are no less significant and will again put New York in a position of leadership in assuring the highest possible quality of care for its vulnerable populations. Governor Cuomo is a proven advocate of civil rights and this transformative initiative provides a safeguard for our most vulnerable populations."
Nancy Thaler, Executive Director of The National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, said, "The historic reforms Governor Cuomo is proposing will make the State of New York a national leader for protecting people with special needs and disabilities. As the Executive Director of an association that works to improve public services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I am very pleased that Governor Cuomo has taken such a leadership role 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 which 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 agencies 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 which 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 -7 years in prison. The Governor's proposal would create a new misdemeanor that will 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 Mr. 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