The issue of abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with developmental disabilities has garnered headlines in New Jersey over the past year. Interestingly, New York State has had similar experiences regarding abuse and neglect of individuals with developmental disabilities. Like New Jersey, many reported cases are not investigated. According to
one report, only five per cent of such cases are forwarded to law enforcement agencies. Another report of abuse in State residential schools run by the New York Education Department indicates that there were119.68 cases of abuse for every 100 beds.

It appears that abuse and neglect of people with developmental disabilities is truly endemic to our society, regardless of the State or region. For that reason, New York State acted on a proposal by Governor Mario Cuomo to create a special Justice Center to protect the civil and human rights of people with developmental disabilities. The Justice
Center will include a special prosecutor and Inspector General.

Unfortunately, the concept of a Justice Center is not universally applauded by advocates for people with disabilities. Many such advocates would prefer that cases of abuse be referred to local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. The advocates fear that the Justice Center will engage in “in house” investigations that will not be open to public scrutiny. In response, Governor Cuomo’s office points out that, unlike other prosecutorial departments, the Justice Center will include professionals with specific training in developmental disabilities.

Others remain skeptical. Michael Carey, an outspoken advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in New York, believes that State agencies need to be more open and rigorous in the quest to protect the rights of vulnerable citizens. Carey’s disabled son died in 2007 at the hands of a direct care worker and Carey believes that a lack of oversight is partially to blame.

Danny Hakims, who currently serves as the New York Times Albany Bureau Chief, has led a series of journalistic investigations of reported cases of abuse in New York State facilities. In one article, Hakim pointed out that

“A New York Times investigation over the past year has found widespread problems in the more than 2,000 state-run homes. In hundreds of cases reviewed by The Times, employees who sexually abused, beat or taunted residents were rarely fired, even after repeated offenses, and in many cases, were simply transferred to other group homes run by the state.”

Certainly, a State investigative and prosecutorial agency, designed to protect the civil and human rights of people with developmental disabilities, is needed in New Jersey. The effectiveness of such an agency will depend on the its careful design. New York’s model can serve as a positive beginning for New Jersey. According to a New York State
announcement:

“The Justice Center will have a special prosecutor and an inspector general for the protection of people with special needs who will investigate reports of abuse and neglect and prosecute allegations that rise to the level of criminal offenses. It will also include a 24/7 hotline run by trained professionals, a comprehensive state-wide database that will track all reports of abuse and neglect, and a state-wide register of workers who have committed serious acts of abuse who will be prohibited from ever working with people with disabilities or special needs.”

Given the inordinate number of cases that are reported in New Jersey, the most egregious violation of the rights of vulnerable citizens is to do nothing.