Analysis: Protecting New York's Most Vulnerable

There have been too many deaths in the homes for developmentally disabled people.

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, May 7, 2012  |  Updated 7:01 PM EDT
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Analysis: Protecting New York's Most Vulnerable

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More than one million of the most vulnerable citizens of New York -- people living in private and public institutions devoted to those with developmental disabilities -- are at risk of neglect and even death.

That the scandal took so long to unearth it is a shame. The New York Times deserves high praise for bringing it to public attention and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for taking action to help the most helpless. However, only history can judge how well the stewards of government in 2012 have performed their duties.

Cuomo, the Times reports, has proposed creating an agency that will zero in on problems with the care of almost a million vulnerable New Yorkers. There would be a special prosecutor appointed with subpoena power and the authority to convene grand juries.

Revelations on how the state has taken care of these helpless fellow citizens are grim indeed. One patient in a group home for the developmentally disabled near Schenectady was placed into a bath tub by an attendant, the Times reported. The patient had almost no ability to lift his head. The attendant walked out of the room for a few minutes and the patient drowned.

There have been almost 1,200 deaths in state and privately run homes in the past decade.

And about one in six deaths has been attributed to unnatural or unknown causes in New York state. It’s more like one in 25 in Connecticut and Massachusetts. So there’s something very wrong going on here.

The Times reviewed death records and found that some inmates -- who were not supposed to be left alone with food -- choked in bathrooms and kitchens. Some patients fell to deaths down stairs. Some ran away and were found dead.

With his background as attorney general, it’s understandable that Cuomo should be concentrating on what may merit prosecution. But one veteran observer of government, who generally gives Cuomo high marks for his actions, thinks the problem is much deeper than the need for enforcement.

Political analyst Hank Sheinkopf told me: "You need better enforcement but you also need better trained people. Many state workers are underpaid and, in this area, paying decent wages counts for a lot. You need adequate salaries and good training

"The disabled people these state employees are caring for aren’t strangers. They’re our mothers and fathers, our children. They’re us. They’re our families."

Sheinkopf is right. Cuomo has made a good start on a difficult problem. But a lot more than hunting down wrongdoing is needed. We need a comprehensive program to enlist the best qualified and best trained workers. And they must get decent pay.

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