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Sunmount Developmental Center (Photo:  Brian Mann
Sunmount Developmental Center (Photo: Brian Mann

Community leaders, workers defend Sunmount

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Fall-out continues this week from a New York Times article published Monday that described "patterns of abuse" at the Sunmount Developmental Center in Tupper Lake

Sunmount cares for some of the most troubled and vulnerable people with developmental disabilities. The facility is also one of the region's top employers, providing over one thousand jobs.

State officials and disability advocates said the report in the Times makes it clear that reforms are needed but local workers and elected officials said the vast majority of workers at Sunmount are doing a good job, providing safe and supportive care.

Brian Mann has our story.

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Commissioner Courtney Burke will testify before an Assembly committee on Monday (Photo: OPWDD)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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The New York Times report describes allegations of physical and verbal abuse at Sunmount.  The report also suggests that an investigation of possible mistreatment of clients last year was poorly handled.

In an email to North Country Public Radio, a spokeperson for the Office of People With Developmental Disabilities said the state is taking the New York Times allegations "very seriously."

On Monday of next week, Commissioner Courtney Burke plans to lay out what’s being called a “plan of action” for “necessary reforms” during a hearing of the state Assembly in Albany.

State Senator Betty Little said the charges of systemic abuse are getting attention in the state capital. "It's a concern. It's a very vulnerable population," Little said. "You don't want to see anyone mistreated as these allegations are. We really need to get better control."

Little said she thinks the Cuomo administration is focused on the problem. "Governor Cuomo is onto this and focused on it and trying to work through it," she said.

Reports like the one published Monday send shockwaves through the community, said Janice Fitzgerald, who heads a disabilities advocacy group called Parent to Parent from her office on the Sunmount campus in Tupper Lake. "His portrayal of the system is a terrifying one for families to understand," she said.

According to Fitzgerald, the state’s Office for People With Developmental Disabilities is meant to be a trusted backstop, a kind of failsafe for families when they just can’t cope alone anymore, which is why stories like this are so frightening.

"As parents we know we're not going to live forever and we have to trust that someone is going to safely take care of our children or adult children with disabilities," Fitzgerald said. 'Who's going to love our children when we're gone?"

Fitzgerald, whose program receives some state funding, said she worries that the Times article is a blunt instrument.  She said she's glad that problems are coming to light, but she also thinks a lot of people at Sunmount and other developmental care facilities in the North Country are doing a great job. "The majority of people who work with disabilities are so dedicated and they are probably hating to see all of this come to light because it's portraying them in the same snapshot and the same stroke of the brush," she said. 

One of those workers is Alex Goralski, who works every day with some of Sunmount’s most troubled and behaviorally challenged clients. "We try hard every day to do our jobs with the tools we're given. Safety is...paramount," he said.

Goralski said he’s actually glad the Times published the article and he hopes some changes will be made, but he said he’s convinced that Sunmount is providing high quality care to a challenging and vulnerable group of people. "I'd hate to see Sunmount, which is really a great place, its name be tarnished because of a few bad apples," he said.

One reason the Times article is raising alarms in the North Country is that Sunmount is a major employer – one of the largest in the Adirondack Park. 

Last November, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a surprise visit to the facility and suggested that it could be vulnerable as the state digs out of a deep budget crisis.

"If Sunmount were to close, I would dare say you don't need a village board, you don't need a town board.  You don't need a whole lot here," said Tupper Lake village mayor Mickey Desmarais. He said without Sunmount, his community’s economy would collapse: "Sunmount is the goose that lays the golden egg.  Well over a thousand people work there."

Desmarais said the village recently established a committee to improve communications and partnerships with Sunmount. He acknowledged calls for reform at the facility but said it still provides an important and valuable service.

"As in any other business, you have your ups and downs, you have your inequities.  But they do a wonderful job.  Someone's got to do it and Tupper Lake is the place," Desmarais said. "I don't see the governor closing this place down because it's such a huge impact on our economy."

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