Curbing Abuse of New York’s Developmentally Disabled

Curbing Abuse of New York’s Developmentally Disabled

October 21, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Courtney Burke, commissioner of the State Office for the Developmentally Disabled. In a few days, the office will release a report on the improvement it's made over the past six months. Photo courtesy of

On Tuesday, the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities announced plans to fire 130 employees accused of abusing the disabled people under their care, reported the New York Daily News.

The announcement is the agency’s latest reform since last March, when the New York Times reported the findings of its yearlong investigation into abuse of the developmentally disabled at approximately 2,000 state-run group homes. The Times’ story revealed an ugly portrait of rampant, unreported physical and sexual abuse of the disabled at the hands of the state workers charged with their care.

As a result of the investigation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo fired the head of the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the agency in charge of group government state services for the disabled, and replaced him with Courtney Burke, a policy analyst on such issues. Next week, Burke’s office will release a report on the reforms she’s already made to the agency and the issues the organization still faces.

“We really looked across the spectrum at all the weak parts in the system,” Burke said of her strategy for planning reform. Soon after taking over, she began implementing the following changes:

  • Raising hiring standards and providing employees with better training and support so that they could identify and report abuse.
  • Overhauling the way the agency deals with incidents of abuse and how it investigates them.
  • Increasing interaction between the agency and law enforcement.
  • Promoting positive relationships between employees and the disabled.

WATCH VIDEO: Courtney Burke on What’s Changed

Courtney Burke discusses the changes she’s helped make to her agency in the past six months. Video courtesy of New York Now.

The gravest concern, which the Times’ pointed out, was that agency employees were not reporting allegations of abuse to law enforcement officials, either because of fear of being fired, ignorance of how or when to report abuse or general systematic ineptitude within the agency. Prior to Burke’s appointment, only 17 percent of allegations of physical abuse within the agency had been reported to law enforcement. Last June, Burke testified at a State Assembly hearing that since she took office in March, there had been a 43 percent increase in the number of physical abuse allegations that were reported, and a 13 percent increase in reporting of sexual abuse allegations, reported the New York Times. By August, the reporting number had increased again, with 91 percent of physical abuse allegations being reported.

Burke’s first major initiative as commissioner was a petition to the federal government to allow the state to use funds, traditionally allocated for structured uses within the department, to experiment with new programs. One example involves moving 10 to 20 percent of developmentally disabled people out of state care and into more traditional, home-like living situations. These plans were sparked, in part, by the revelation that many executives of Medicaid-financed non-profits helping the disabled were being paid inflated salaries.

Hiring Burke was not the only shakeup Cuomo made to the state’s services for the developmentally disabled.

The governor also hired Roger Bearden to chair the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, whose role it is to investigate allegations of abuse. In previous years, the Commission had failed to interact with the press, so Bearden’s role is to put a public face on the commission and provide greater transparency. However, it should be noted that at the Assembly hearing last June, it appeared that Bearden was hazy on what exactly the Commission’s role entailed, according to the New York Times.

Cuomo also hired developmental disability expert Clarence Sundram to serve as his special advisor on vulnerable persons.

“We don’t have any consistency in public policy when it comes to this vulnerable population,” Sundram told the Times.

The complex system of oversight of the state’s group homes is one of the most difficult hurdles to the system’s reform. Currently, state group homes are overseen by the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, Bearden’s Commission and the State Health Department. The oversight organizations lack consistency in their regulations,  which often causes confusion — sometimes with horrific results.

Sundram is currently reviewing these organizations, along with three other agencies serving vulnerable populations: the State Office of Mental Health, the Office of Children and Family Services and the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

Burke agrees that centralizing operations is key, and told The Capitol Report’s Susan Arbetter that the state’s system of oversight is being restructured.

“It used to be that investigators were located out in the field and they could potentially be investigating someone they worked with and you can see where there’s a problem with that,” Burke told Arbetter.

As a result, Cuomo signed an agreement between his administration and the State Police in August that calls for the establishment of stricter guidelines for reporting abuse of the developmentally disabled and mandates the firing of employees who fail to report abuse.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but I think there’s a lot of things we still have to do,” Burke told New York NOW.