In an audit conducted by the State Comptroller’s Office, the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs was found to have withheld more than 70 percent of the incidents for which it was initially under investigation.
In response, representatives from Disability Rights New York, a nonprofit advocacy group that provides free legal and advocacy services to developmentally disabled New Yorkers, are planning to file a lawsuit to win full disclosure of the incident records.
The audit, released in March, identified that the majority of the information withheld by the Justice Center included cases where investigations have not been completed or where allegations were deemed unfounded.
Rather than ensuring that claims of neglect and abuse had been fully investigated and referred to law enforcement, the audit found that the Justice Center focused more of its efforts on ensuring the right to due process for those who had been accused – and subsequently convicted – of committing such acts.
The audit did point out some things the Justice Center is doing adequately.
The audit report confirms that the Justice Center does maintain a database of reported allegations as well as a staff exclusion list — a registry that details the names and employment information of any caregiver statewide who has bee accused of, or found to have committed, incidents of abuse or neglect.
However, the Comptroller’s Office found three individuals with substantiated Category-One offenses that were erroneously left off the list at the time of the audit.
Although the Justice Center was found to appropriately catalog reports of abuse and neglect from its hotline in a database called the Vulnerable Persons Central Register, the Comptroller’s Office discovered a number of discrepancies in its files, including inconsistent case numbering and fields found to be inaccurate or left blank.
The Comptroller’s Office is recommending that the Justice Center implement a system of assurance that the both the staff exclusion list and the VPCR database are regularly screened for accuracy and corrected, if necessary.
In its response to the audit, the Justice Center claims that reviewing unsubstantiated reports of abuse is outside the purview of the Comptroller’s audit. The Comptroller’s Office notes that the Justice Center denied access to reports both substantiated and not.
Representatives from Disability Rights New York were not surprised by the audit findings.
In 2012, DRNY was tasked with the independent oversight of the Justice Center. Ever since then, the organization has been fighting for access to the Justice Center’s records, the same access denied to the Comptroller’s office.
In a March 2016 ruling, the federal district court of New York’s Northern District affirmed that Disability Rights New York is entitled to the Justice Center’s records.
Representatives from DRNY say this was not enough and they are filing a lawsuit to compel disclosure of these records.
“In light of the Comptroller’s findings of a lack of transparency and oversight at the Justice Center, and their continued obstruction of DRNY’s federal right of access, we are again calling for the Justice Center to be moved out of the Executive Branch to the Attorney General’s office,” said Timothy Clune, executive director of DRNY.
The Justice Center was created in 2012 as part of the Protection of People with Special Needs Act. According to the Governor’s Office, more than 10,000 allegations of abuse and neglect were made in the year prior to the bill’s passing.
“This new law will help us protect the civil rights of the more than one million New Yorkers with disabilities and special needs who for too long have not had the protections and justice they deserve,” Gov. Cuomo said in a 2012 statement. “This legislation recognizes the dedication and good work of the many employees who care for the disabled, and we will continue our commitment to providing proper training and support for those who work in these facilities.”
In addition to advocating on behalf of New Yorkers with special needs, promoting their inclusion in all aspects of community life and maintaining their quality of care, the Justice Center expanded beyond the jurisdiction of its predecessor, the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, to include operating an abuse hotline, maintaining a staff exclusion list and establishing a system for investigating allegations of abuse and neglect.
Fielding concerns that the Justice Center would be too closely affiliated with the Governor’s Office, under the authority of which it operates, Gov. Cuomo expanded the measures of the Justice Center bill to include oversight by an independent watchdog organization, the role to which DRNY was later named.