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Courtney Burke heads New York's Office for People with Developmentan Disabilities
Courtney Burke heads New York's Office for People with Developmentan Disabilities

Commissioner touts new protections for people with disabilities

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Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to create a new state agency, designed to protect people with disabilities living in instutions or assisted-living facilities across New York.

Yesterday, Courtney Burke, who heads the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, traveled to Plattsburgh to promote the idea, which is now being considered by the state Assembly. Brian Mann has our story.

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Thursday’s program began with David Dechene from Tupper Lake stepping to the podium and telling the story of his son David Jr., a fifty year old man who has experienced learning disabilities and seizures since he was born. 

David Jr. has lived most of his life in group homes and care facilities operated by Sunmount in Tupper Lake and according to his father, most of his caregivers have been good and kind people.  But David Dechene said there have also been horror stories.

"One caregiver who was taking care of David in one of the group homes would constantly hit David on the head with his stone ring.  He would turn the ring over and whack him on the head.  And when David would howl, yell, whatever, he would kick him," Dechene recounted

Dechene said another caregiver would leave his son unattended, which led to a serious accident.  Governor Cuomo has used the Dechene family’s story as part of a video touting the need for reform and better oversight.  Speaking Thursday, Dechene said changes are needed.

"The abuse and neglect that my son endured was, I think, 100% preventable."

Dechene was joined at the podium by Courtney Burke, head of the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

Last year, when the New York Times ran a series of scathing investigative reports suggesting widespread neglect and abuse in the state’s institutional care system, Burke promised reforms.

She says legislation introduced by Governor Cuomo would protect roughly a million New Yorkers, cared for by a wide range of agencies and organizations.

"There is no consistent set of safeguards across those agencies.  So it begins to make those safeguards consistent.  It also aggressively investigates and addresses instances of neglect and abuse."

Burke promised that the special prosecutor and inspector general in the new Justice Center would treat workers with respect, investigating claims of abuse fairly. 

But some advocates for the developmentally disabled – including one former whistleblower from Sunmount - have argued that Governor Cuomo’s reforms don’t go far enough, in part because the state would still investigate abuse and neglect claims internally, without a requirement that police be notified. 

The bill that would create the new Justice Center passed the state Senate and is now being considered in the Assembly. 

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