- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Frustrated with the response of a state oversight agency, some New York lawmakers want to mandate that complaints about possible abuse or neglect of disabled or mentally ill people in state care be made first to 911 and local prosecutors.

The proposal would be a break from the current protocol, which calls for such complaints to be routed directly to New York’s Justice Center, the agency set up three years ago to protect the more than 1 million disabled, mentally ill and addicted in state care.

Supporters of the legislation have questioned how aggressively the Justice Center pursues such cases, and they say getting local authorities involved at the same time would help stop abuse, increase transparency and start potential cases faster. The bill also would raise the penalty for failure to report incidents from a misdemeanor to a felony.

“Calling 911 ensures that police officers and DA’s offices review cases of suspected abuse and or neglect at the time of the incident - just like any other crime,” said Assemblyman David Weprin, a Queens Democrat and lead sponsor. He acknowledged it can be difficult to get controversial measures passed before the legislative session ends early next month, but said it’s possible.

“Amazing things happen in 48 hours in Albany,” Weprin said Friday.

Justice Center officials said they were still studying the 911 proposal and have not yet taken a position on it.

Opposition has been led by the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents about 20,000 state and nonprofit workers who care for developmentally disabled New Yorkers. Spokesman Stephen Madarasz said local police are often unprepared to investigate difficult cases with unreliable witnesses and that there was only a “patchwork” police involvement before the Justice Center was created.

The Justice Center’s 24-member advisory council - made up of representatives of caretaker agencies as well as five parents of disabled individuals - wrote a letter to lawmakers earlier this year critical of the legislation, saying 911 could be overwhelmed with abuse and neglect complaints, and should be reserved only for medical, fire and safety emergencies. It also noted that the Justice Center “currently notifies and collaborates with local law enforcement on potential criminal cases.”

The Justice Center’s notification of local authorities was called into question this month in an Associated Press investigation of nine suspicious deaths among the developmentally disabled in Long Island’s Suffolk County over the past three years. The Justice Center said it told local prosecutors of the cases, but those prosecutors said they knew nothing about them. It turned out the Justice Center sent the notifications to an assistant prosecutor’s private email, an account that apparently had been left dormant. And there was no evidence anyone from the Justice Center followed up.

Also, an AP analysis last year found that out of 7,000 substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect by caregivers, just 2.5 percent of those cases resulted in criminal charges. Records released earlier this year showed the Justice Center declined to investigate most of the nearly 1,400 deaths of developmentally disabled people in state care in the past two years, leaving the majority of the investigations to the caretaker facilities themselves.

Advocates for the disabled say immediate police involvement would remove the caretaker agencies themselves from continuing to investigate the vast majority of abuse allegations involving their own staff and potentially minimize findings or cover them up.

“The problems are massive,” said Michael Carey, an advocate whose autistic 13-year-old son was smothered by a caregiver in 2007. He’s planning to release a public service announcement next week in support of the legislation.

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