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Scathing Report Faults NY Agency That Protects People With Disabilities

A BuzzFeed News investigation showed the vast state agency left people with disabilities vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Now lawmakers are promising to take a harder look — or to eliminate it altogether.

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NYC Health + Hospitals (obtained by FOIL)

Surveillance video shows a Bellevue Hospital patient being attacked by a staff member. The Justice Center, the subject of a new report from the office of the New York State Comptroller, failed to press charges for more than two years.

The state agency tasked with protecting New Yorkers with disabilities failed to blacklist serial abusers, took almost a year to investigate numerous cases without documenting why, and blocked auditors from seeing more than 70% of crucial records, according to a scathing new report from the office of the State Comptroller.

BuzzFeed News reported last year that the agency, the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, often failed to prosecute abuse and neglect. The Center took more than two years to press charges against an employee of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan who beat a patient so badly that he broke several bones in the patient’s face — despite the fact that the entire episode was caught on the hospital’s security cameras. The new report from the Comptroller’s office adds to the criticism of the troubled agency, which is expected to be the subject of hearings in the New York State Assembly during the current legislative session.

In addition, a member of the Assembly is introducing legislation to eliminate the Justice Center entirely. “This agency is legalized obstruction of justice and it needs to be abolished,” said Thomas Abinanti, the legislator who is drafting the bill. Since BuzzFeed News’ reporting on the Justice Center last year, he said, “nothing has changed, there have been no improvements.”

According to the Comptroller’s report, the product of a three-year audit, the Justice Center denied regulators access to records of most of the incidents reported to the Center’s hotline, only providing records from cases where the Center had confirmed a report of abuse or neglect. “It leaves questions about the unsubstantiated cases,” Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office, told BuzzFeed News. “Because the information was so limited, we can’t say whether we think all allegations were investigated fully and in a timely manner.”

In response to the Comptroller’s report, the Justice Center’s Executive Deputy Director Jay Kiyonaga issued a strongly worded letter arguing that confidentiality laws prohibited the Center from providing additional records, and that the Comptroller’s office “does not have the legal expertise” to review the Center’s findings.

The auditors found that the agency failed to place three abusers on its registry of people who are barred from working with disabled people. One person committed two acts of abuse within seven months, a time frame that should automatically land someone on the blacklist. But the agency took 316 days to investigate one of the incidents, and the abuser slipped through the cracks.

Nearly a quarter of the investigations the auditors were able to evaluate took more than 300 days. The Justice Center is legally required to document why any investigation takes more than 60 days, but officials from the Center provided no such documentation.

"Our audit found several problems with how the Justice Center is tracking allegations of wrongdoing by individuals responsible for caring for vulnerable New Yorkers," State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. "We cannot determine how effectively the Justice Center is operating or whether significant changes are needed."

Following BuzzFeed News’ reporting on the Justice Center last year, several members of the New York State Assembly promised to hold hearings examining the Justice Center’s effectiveness during the legislative session that began in January. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who chairs the chamber’s Mental Health Committee, told BuzzFeed News that she now expects those hearings to happen after the budget season ends in April.

DiNapoli told BuzzFeed News that he supports legislative hearings about the Justice Center, lending a powerful voice in Albany to the push for legislative oversight. He also wrote to the leaders of both chambers of the state legislature requesting new legislation to grant the Comptroller’s office access to records from investigations of unconfirmed allegations of abuse and neglect.

In his statement, Kiyonaga also said that the Comptroller’s findings of inaccuracies in the Center’s data and blacklist were not correct, although his letter did not address any specific cases.

Ben Hattem is a Brooklyn-based journalist and the 2016 recipient of the Nellie Bly Cub Reporter award from the New York Press Club. Send tips to bhattemtips@gmail.com. His secure PGP fingerprint is 309D 9C21 3B2D BC49 D987 4B89 7258 BDCA C959 FD11

Contact Ben Hattem at ben.hattem@gmail.com.

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