By Michael Virtanen
ALBANY - Criticized by the federal government for poor care and oversight of disabled New Yorkers, the state is installing a new prosecutor and inspector general to crack down on institutional abuse while a legal services group has assumed statewide protection of their rights.
The legal group, formerly Albany-based Disability Advocates, with a half-dozen lawyers in eastern New York, has responsibility for legal protection and advocacy statewide and will temporarily continue to use contractors in other parts of the state.
Executive Director Timothy Clune said the relabeled Disability Rights New York is hiring staff and keeping its focus on getting clients what they need and suing if necessary. It took over from the state Commission on Quality of Care, criticized in a 2011 federal report for lacking independence from agencies it monitored.
"It's not about running to court at a moment's notice, but our office has the reputation of doing that," Clune said. "Federal law provides that we have access to facilities. ... We won't hesitate to litigate over that."
Theresa Maynard, who has an adult son with a disability, said she had Supplemental Security Income overpayments while going through a divorce that led to authorities to say she owed about $15,000 she didn't have. They attended a hearing with her and helped get it waived, which she said was one of the big issues they've helped her with.
"They're a huge asset," Maynard said. "You wouldn't be able to deal with some of these agencies and the hoops you have to jump through."
Meanwhile, the new state Justice Center will start investigating criminal abuse cases June 30. Clune's group, with federal contracts and about $6 million in annual funding, will also have oversight of the state's efforts and will be working out access to investigative reports and other information, he said.
New York's treatment of its disabled has been marked by decades of abuse scandals, including deaths. It now joins most other states with a nonprofit group directly providing federally funded legal services and oversight.
In a December 2011 letter to the state-run commission, federal authorities cited "major deficiencies" in its watchdog role, which followed reports by The New York Times of ongoing abuse and neglect of residents in state institutions. Criticisms included poor public outreach, little input from disabled individuals and their families, and an inability to act on abuse and neglect.
The state agencies themselves were primarily doing their own internal investigations of staff abuse and neglect complaints, while the commission's probes and findings of wrongdoing were referred back to the same agencies.
The commission was created in 1977 after the Willowbrook scandal. Overcrowding, filth and abuse at Willowbrook, a state institution on Staten Island housing more than 6,000 mentally disabled children, led to a class-action federal court settlement and its eventual closure, as well as nationwide efforts at deinstitutionalization.
Critics say abuse persists despite promises and efforts to address it.
In March, the state agency responsible for care and services for 126,000 disabled New Yorkers reported that abuse allegations declined from 2011 to 2012. The Office for People with Developmental Disabilities cited some reforms over the past two years, including better incident reporting and investigations.
Its data showed 62,776 complaints from 2008 through 2012, including 19,842 claims of neglect, 18,600 accusations of physical abuse, 14,720 allegations of psychological abuse and 6,384 alleged cases of sexual abuse.
In December, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to create the new Justice Center, which he said will better protect about a million New Yorkers with disabilities and special needs under state-funded residential and day care. It will have a hotline for reporting abuse, a statewide incident database and a list of employees banned for abusive behavior.
Clune's group operates a toll-free phone line to field complaints and issues. Providing regional coverage from Westchester County to the Canadian border, it has been averaging nearly 1,500 calls a year. Its potential client list now also includes an estimated 5 million New Yorkers with disabilities living outside institutions.