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NY lawmakers to vote on "Justice Center" legislation for people with disabilities

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The Assembly and Senate are expected to vote on legislation they say will curb abuses against people with disabilities in state care. According to the Albany Times Union, the vote could come tomorrow. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders reached a deal on his proposal in closed door meetings over the weekend. Karen DeWitt has more.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

Cuomo and legislative leaders reached a compromise over legislation that includes a new state agency that Cuomo is  calling the Justice Center. He says it will help prevent abuse of people with physical and mental disabilities in state care. The governor’s special advisor on people with disabilities, Clarence Sundram, says the bill creates a new special prosecutor and inspector general to look into allegations of abuse and neglect, and prosecute if there’s evidence of criminal activities.

The legislation also sets up a 24-hour hotline to report suspected abuse, and will prohibit any caregiver convicted of abuse from ever working with people with disabilities again. “It  raises the bar on protecting vulnerable people,” said Sundram.

The New York Times, in a series that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, documented numerous cases of abuse and alleged abuse among the disabled in state care over a period of several years. The Cuomo Administration, in a press release announcing the deal, admits that there were more than 10,000 allegations of abuse and neglect against New Yorkers with special needs and disabilities in state operated, certified or licensed facilities and programs.

Sundram says for the first time, all six state agencies that deal with the disabled, as well as multiple providers that contract with the state, will all have to live up to the same rules and standards for preventing and reporting abuse, providing “clarity.”

Assembly Democrats, who expressed concern that the new agency would be too greatly under the control of the governor, won some concessions in the final deal.  The revised package includes a 15-member independent advisory board that will include advocates and family members of those in state care.

Michael Carey is an advocate against abuse of the disabled. His 13-year-old autistic son Jonathan was asphyxiated  by a developmental center worker in 2007 during a trip in a state van. Carey calls the agreement “an historic failure,” and says it does not go far enough to protect the disabled against abuse. Carey would like to see surveillance cameras to monitor developmental centers and group homes, periodic drug tests required for workers and prohibition of excessive overtime for workers. The man convicted of killing Jonathan Carey had worked over 200 hours in the two weeks prior to the incident.

Carey says he’s consulting with attorneys and would like to file a lawsuit over the new legislation, once Cuomo signs it into law. “I was concerned that this might come down to this, and tragically it has,” Carey said. “This is an absolute failure to reform New York’s mental health care system.”

Other groups that advocate for the disabled support the law, and in a coordinated effort, deluged reporter’s email in-boxes with statements of support.

 “Creation of the Justice Center and other provisions of the new statute will ensure new safeguards for over a million New Yorkers with special needs who are in the care of the state or community-based organizations, preventing neglect and abuse and appropriately addressing neglect and abuse when they do occur,” said  John Coppola, with the Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers, in a statement.

Sundram, Cuomo’s special advisor on the disabled headed a state reform commission after the Willowbrook revelations of abuse and neglect in the 1970’s. He says there are privacy issues that prevent surveillance cameras from being used routinely, but says they will be used as investigative tools during probes of alleged abuse. And he says drug tests could not be performed on existing state workers. And he admits that, during the last few decades, previous administrations have dropped the ball on protecting the state’s most vulnerable people, saying there was government “atrophy and apathy” and dysfunction.

The new provisions won’t take effect until 2013. Sundram says it will take time to get everything fully implemented.

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