A Channel 5 investigative report earlier this week disclosed that group homes and other providers of services to the developmentally disabled are often not informed about substantiated abuse allegations against individuals they hire as caregivers.
The TV news report also made the important point that abusers of disabled persons in Massachusetts are rarely prosecuted for those crimes.
In no way are we criticizing Channel 5 in saying they have uncovered the tip of an iceberg with their findings. Their report revealed more to the public about the Department of Developmental Services system than the rest of the media in the state and most state and legislative investigative authorities have revealed in recent years.
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that abuse and neglect are only the most outward and visible signs of an overall breakdown in DDS’s largely privatized system.
It is a system that is not adequately monitored by DDS, that underpays and provides inadequate training to direct-care staff, and that overpays a padded layer of corporate provider executives. Moreover, when family members and guardians attempt to question the care and conditions in the system, they are ignored, or worse, intimidated and subjected to retaliation by both the providers and DDS.
One of those family members who has suffered apparent retaliation is Susan Fernstrom, who we just wrote about last week. Susan was banned by her daughter’s provider agency from entering her daughter’s group home after she raised concerns about poor care and conditions in the residence. The provider then sought to evict Susan’s daughter from the home.
In cases in which family members do not have guardianship rights, those persons can find themselves restricted from all contact with their loved ones, apparently indefinitely.
In the past several months, we have tried to make the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Person’s with Disabilities Committee aware of these interrelated issues. In January, the Committee did hold a brief hearing on DDS; but, as we have noted, family members and other members of the public were not allowed to speak before the panel.
We continue to hope that the Children and Families Committee will show that it is taking this situation seriously. If the Committee were serious, it would get behind legislative reforms.
One of the first pieces of legislation that we think needs to be enacted is the guardian rights bill (H. 887), which has been stuck in the Judiciary Committee, effectively since 1999. The bill would require that probate judges presume that parents of developmentally disabled individuals are the proper guardians for them. That bill, if it ever passed, would give basic rights to family members that are not currently extended to them.
We think that proposed legislation to impose fines on providers that provide substandard care or that otherwise fail to adequately respond to instances of abuse could follow from that.
The Channel 5 report discussed the need for an additional piece of legislation (S. 2213), which would establish a registry containing the names of individuals who have had abuse or neglect allegations substantiated against them by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission or other agencies that investigate those issues.
As Channel 5 noted, persons applying for caregiver positions in the DDS system currently must undergo criminal background checks, which disclose previous convictions for abuse and other crimes in Massachusetts and other states.
However, even when abuse against persons with developmental disabilities is substantiated by agencies such as the DPPC, it does not usually result in criminal charges. As a result, those findings of substantiated abuse are not made known to providers or other agencies seeking to hire caregivers. That’s why an abuse registry is needed in Massachusetts.
We would note that such a registry needs to be designed to take into account the larger issue of the dysfunctionality of the system. Most if not all abuse occurs because upper management in both provider agencies and DDS itself doesn’t care enough about the problem to ensure that staff are properly trained and supervised.
Until executives within provider agencies are held accountable for the abuse that occurs by low-level agency employees, those low-level employees will simply continue to be replaced by other equally bad personnel.
One other thing to keep in mind is that even though the DPPC does have a backlog of abuse investigations, as the Channel 5 report pointed out, the Commission refers the vast majority of its complaints to DDS for investigation. This creates a conflict of interest for DDS, which is also supposed to be overseeing the same providers that it is now investigating.
We think the DPPC needs to be given the resources necessary to allow it to serve as a truly comprehensive and independent investigatory agency. The DPPC also needs to make its investigative process more transparent and, in that vein, make its reports available to the public.
The Channel 5 report this week demonstrates that at least one media outlet in the state recognizes that there is a serious problem with the oversight of care for a large segment of the disabled population in Massachusetts. We hope the report serves to wake up the rest of the media, the Legislature, and the Baker administration to this problem.