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Legislators And Advocates Call For Overhaul Of Justice Center

Several members of the legislature and a federal watchdog say the agency that handles abuse of people with disabilities should be restructured. The move follows a BuzzFeed News story that found that the Justice Center hardly ever holds abusers criminally accountable.

Posted on July 25, 2016, at 12:35 p.m. ET

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A key watchdog group and several members of the state legislature are calling for a complete overhaul of the way New York state handles abuse of people with disabilities, including stripping Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office of its purview over a troubled agency.

The New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People With Special Needs has shown itself incapable of investigating and prosecuting mistreatment, even in cases of horrific violence, said Disability Rights New York, a nonprofit with a federal mandate to review the Center’s work. At least four members of the legislature have signaled their agreement and said they want to see legislation in the next session to dismantle the Justice Center and make the Attorney General responsible for investigating and prosecuting abuse.

Assembly Member Aileen Gunther
Mike Groll / AP

Assembly Member Aileen Gunther

Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, chair of the body’s Mental Health Committee, said she plans to hold hearings on the agency’s failures and the overhaul proposal.

The moves follow a BuzzFeed News story that found that the Justice Center hardly ever holds abusers criminally accountable. More than 92% of substantiated cases in the Justice Center’s most severe categories of abuse in 2015 were not prosecuted. In addition, the Center failed for more than two years to prosecute an employee of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan who attacked a patient on the hospital’s prison psychiatric ward twice in February 2014. The Center did not press charges until March 2016 despite clear video evidence of the attacks, in which the patient suffered a broken nose and eye socket.

“Under the cover of enforcing the law, they’re thwarting criminal investigations,” said Assembly Member Thomas Abinanti in an interview.

In a written statement, Justice Center spokesman Bill Reynolds said the center is “always working to improve its effectiveness” and added that Disability Rights is welcome to “join in this effort.” Reynolds did not say whether the Center favored or opposed the proposed overhaul.

Paul Francis, deputy secretary for health and human services, whose office oversees the Center, said no overhaul was necessary. “By statute, the Justice Center is an independent agency,” Francis said in a statement. “It has been vested with prosecutorial and investigative powers, and is diligently and successfully pursuing its mission.”

A spokesperson for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his office had no comment on the proposal because it was still reviewing it.

Abinanti and other state legislators said they also plan to reintroduce a bill that would force staff who see abuse to report it to the police, instead of just reporting it to the Justice Center. The so-called 911 bill would put another check on the power of the Justice Center by making sure that law enforcement gets involved in investigating serious mistreatment.

A similar bill died last year after opposition from the powerful Civil Service Employees Association.

“Under the cover of enforcing the law, they’re thwarting criminal investigations.”

The push to dismantle the Justice Center is only the latest in a long and troubled history of the state’s effort to protect disabled people in its care.

The Justice Center was founded just three years ago, after its predecessor, the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities, asked the governor to shut it down because it said it was incapable of doing its job.

In creating the Justice Center, Cuomo vowed that it would put in place “the strongest protections in the nation for over one million New Yorkers with special needs.”

In practice, however, little has changed, with the Center continuing to farm out about half its investigations to the very departments of the state government that licensed the facilities in the first place.

The Center has also stonewalled outside watchdogs, according to advocates. Disability Rights New York sued the Center in January 2015 for failing to hand over complete records of its investigations as required by federal law. In March of this year, a judge in the Northern District of New York ruled that the center had “interfered with [Disability Rights’] mandate to protect and advocate on behalf of individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities.”

Advocates also say that the Justice Center has been withholding records from parents of children mistreated in state facilities. After a 13-year-old boy named Jonathan Carey was crushed to death in 2007 at a state facility, the legislature passed “Jonathan’s Law” to grant parents of children with disabilities who live in state facilities access to records of abuse reports and investigations.

But Michael Carey, Jonathan’s father, said the Center has not been notifying parents of their rights under Jonathan’s Law. And Ilann Maazel, a lawyer who has represented several high-profile victims of abuse, including the Carey family, says the Justice Center refuses to release its own records under the law.

The Justice Center is “like a black hole,” Maazel told BuzzFeed News.

Assembly Member Tom Abinanti
Hans Pennink / AP

Assembly Member Tom Abinanti

Alongside the growing calls for legislative reform, the state comptroller’s office confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it has been auditing the Justice Center since last summer, examining the Center’s effectiveness at investigating and prosecuting abuse cases. Abinanti told BuzzFeed News that the Center has delayed the audit by redacting and withholding records from the comptroller’s office.

The comptroller’s office declined to comment because the audit is ongoing. Reynolds, of the Justice Center, said the center complies with the comptroller’s “information requests as permitted by law.”

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction” with the Justice Center among state legislators, Abinanti told BuzzFeed News. “We had to give it time to fail,” he added. “It’s done that.” •


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