Advocate blasts NY's new plan to protect disabled

By Michael Gormley

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 18 2012 3:59 p.m. MDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — A man whose autistic son died in state care said a deal announced to better protect disabled people in state facilities will only perpetuate abuse and cover-ups because the bill won't create true independent oversight of the system.

"It's a political stunt," said the advocate, Michael Carey, of the deal struck by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders and announced Sunday night. "The bill is a disaster. I call it a fraudulent scheme ... it deceives families."

Carey said Monday that the bill to create the "Justice Center" agency makes the same mistake as past reform efforts: It puts oversight in the hands of the governor, whose executive branch runs the system. The Legislature is expected to pass the measure this week.

"This is about total control," Carey told reporters. "Their motivation is to protect themselves from lawsuits."

The agreement struck behind closed doors between Cuomo and legislative leaders seeks to end years of abuse, death and accusations of cover-ups in the state system.

Cuomo said there were more than 10,000 allegations of abuse against disabled New Yorkers in state-funded facilities last year. The New York Times has reported more than 1,200 deaths in the facilities over the past decade were blamed on unnatural or unknown causes.

About 1 million youths and adults are cared for in the system that includes contracts to nonprofit agencies caring for the mentally ill, physically disabled and those with special needs, including New Yorkers with autism.

Jonathan Carey, 13, was asphyxiated in 2007 when an aide sat on him and covered his mouth with his hand after the boy undid his seatbelt in a van during an outing to an Albany-area mall, according to court papers. His parents sued, discovering the aide had a criminal record, as well many abuse reports involving other aides within the system. Jonathan's aide was later convicted of manslaughter and the Careys won a $5 million settlement from the state, which funds a foundation and their continuing reform efforts.

The issue remains politically sensitive in part because it involves workers represented by powerful unions.

Several other agencies in the system and other advocates have applauded the plan.

"These changes further strengthen the sweeping legislation that was originally proposed in May by Gov. Cuomo," said Judith Ursitti, Autism Speaks director of state government affairs.

The New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse providers said the bill "will ensure new safeguards for over a million New Yorkers with special needs."

Carey, who had successfully sued the state to open records in his autistic son's death at a facility, criticized the law for what he said was its lack of transparency. He noted governors will appoint the prosecutor, the inspector general to handle complaints, and appoint the independent advisory board overseeing the new agency.

Cuomo spokesman Matthew Wing said the Justice Center will have the strongest standards in the country.

"It also brings a new level of transparency, independence and accountability to the system," Wing said Monday.

He explained that an outside watchdog nonprofit group chosen by the governor but funded by the federal government "will advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities, conduct its own investigations of abuse and neglect reports and pursue legal action when necessary."

Wing also said that nonprofit agencies, which hadn't been reporting all abuse claims, will now have to keep records subject to public disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Law. The Justice Center will also have to include abuses and corrective actions in annual reports to the governor and Legislature.

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