9 Deaths, No Charges Raise Questions About NY's Justice Center - NBC New York

9 Deaths, No Charges Raise Questions About NY's Justice Center

An advocate says New York's oversight agency for the disabled in state care, the Justice Center, is not doing enough to pursue suspicious cases

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    In this Wednesday, April 20, 2016 photo, sisters Patricia Ann Jirak, left, and Catherine Jirak Monetti, pose holding a photograph of their sister, Carolyn, in Mineola, N.Y. Carolyn Jirak is one of the disabled people who have died in state care since 2013 in Suffolk County with abuse or neglect allegations, yet none has resulted in criminal charges. The sisters contend Carolyn's death followed weeks of mistreatment. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)

    Little more than names and incident numbers appear on a Long Island medical examiner's list of nine developmentally disabled people who died in state care since 2013, but this much is known for sure: All the deaths came under a cloud of abuse or neglect allegations, and none resulted in criminal charges.

    The one-page list titled "Abuse and Neglect with Death Involved" surfaced as part of a Freedom of Information request by an advocate who called it only the latest example of how New York's oversight agency for the disabled in state care, the Justice Center, is not doing enough to pursue suspicious cases.

    Questioned by The Associated Press about the handling of the deaths, all in Long Island's Suffolk County, state and local officials responded with conflicting accounts. The Justice Center says it told county prosecutors about the cases, in accordance with state law, but prosecutors say that's not true. The medical examiner's office says it referred two cases to police for further investigation. After police denied for days that they got them, they acknowledged this week that they did.

    "It screams for a federal civil rights and criminal investigation," said Michael Carey, who became an advocate for the disabled after his son was suffocated in 2007 by a state group home worker who was later convicted of manslaughter.

    Carey has become a frequent critic of the Justice Center, established in 2013 to protect the 1 million disabled, addicted and mentally ill in state care. Its mandate is to probe all allegations of wrongdoing by caretakers, with the power to refer cases to local prosecutors or bring criminal charges itself.

    But an AP analysis last year found it rarely uses that power, with just 2.5 percent of the more than 7,000 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect resulting in criminal charges. Records released earlier this year showed the Justice Center declined to investigate most of the nearly 1,400 deaths of developmentally disabled people in state care in the past two years, leaving the majority of the investigations to the caretaker facilities themselves.

    Seeking to find out exactly how often the Justice Center refers deaths in state care to local officials for criminal investigation, Carey filed a sweeping public records request of every county prosecutor and medical examiner in New York.

    Suffolk County was the only one of 62 counties to offer up - by name - the suspicious deaths it received from the Justice Center over the past three years. Three other counties gave just numbers, a total of 15 such deaths. The list from Suffolk's medical examiner's office contained no details, and the Justice Center refused to elaborate about individual cases, citing privacy laws that entitle only relatives to health records and abuse reports.

    One of those families, located by the AP, plans to use those documents to sue the group home where a developmentally disabled woman lived before dying last year.

    Carolyn Jirak, 62, spent nearly her entire life in state-funded care, classified as nonverbal with the intellectual capacity of a young child.

    Her sister Catherine Jirak Monetti contends Jirak's death followed weeks of mistreatment, including an unexplained broken kneecap that was untreated for days, an ankle wound that became severely infected with cellulitis, and prescribed antibiotics that weren't given for three days. Jirak was eventually taken to a hospital with pneumonia and fever, and died 10 days later of respiratory failure.

    A report the family received on an internal investigation by group home operator, Independent Group Home Living Inc., found there was no abuse. But Monetti is not convinced.

    "She did not die of natural causes," the sister said.

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