New York state is paying $3 million to the family of developmentally disabled boy repeatedly molested by a staffer at a state-run group home who later wrote that lax supervision at the facility made it "a predator's dream."
The former staffer, Stephen DeProspero, is now imprisoned in the Attica Correctional Facility. He was incriminated by videos and photographs he took of the molestation, which occurred from 2005 to 2008 at the facility located in central New York.
"The lack of supervision there made it easy to do what I did," DeProspero said in a handwritten affidavit obtained by The Associated Press. "I could have stayed in that house for years and abused him every day without anybody even noticing at all. It was a predator's dream."
State officials say new policies are in place to prevent similar crimes. But a leading critic of state institutional care said the problems persist.
"Tragically, this sexual predator case is a drop in the bucket in regards to the rampant sexual abuse occurring within New York State's mental health care system today," said Michael Carey, whose autistic son was killed by a state caregiver 10 years ago this month.
The Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, which oversees care for more than 128,000 New Yorkers, has taken steps to strengthen safety and security, according to spokesman Scott Sandman. They include pre-employment psychological assessments and enhanced staff training on ways to prevent, recognize and report abuse and neglect. Senior administrators are required to make unannounced inspections of state-run facilities.
"We also increased the minimum qualifications for our state direct support staff and put more stringent background checks in place," he said, adding that an agency created by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and known as the Justice Center has the power to investigate "any abuse or neglect of a person we serve."
The Justice Center investigated only six of the nearly 1,400 deaths of developmentally disabled people who died in state care from June 30, 2013, to May 31, 2015, according to a review last year by the AP.
In the case of DeProspero, red flags that might have prompted an investigation went unnoticed.
Some of the abuse occurred in an open, common area of the group home, according to legal documents. In another instance, DeProspero recorded a video of abuse over the course of four hours on Christmas Eve 2007, even though DeProspero was not scheduled to work that day.
"I was confident that a supervisor would never check in to see what was going on," DeProspero wrote in his statement. "The supervisors spent the vast majority of their shifts in their offices doing paperwork. They were rarely out of their offices."
DeProspero, 43, pleaded guilty to predatory sexual assault in 2010 and was sentenced to 18 years to life. He also pleaded guilty to manufacturing child pornography and was sentenced to 40 years. The sentences are being served concurrently.
He came to the attention of authorities in 2009 when an investigation of online child pornography led them to his computer. Photos and video of the molestation were later discovered.
The $3 million settlement between the state and the family of the victim was finalized late last year. It's intended to pay for the victim's future care and visits with his mother.
The victim, now 20, has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is mostly nonverbal. He remains at a state-operated group home.
"This is a case where you had someone who really was evil. But what failed here was the system," said Andrew Celli, an attorney with the New York City firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, which represented the boy's family in the case. "You have to have systems in place to ensure the safety of children who have needs, and they just fell down on the job here."
Carey wants state leaders to require surveillance cameras in group homes. He's also pushed legislation that would require complaints about possible abuse or neglect of disabled or mentally ill people in state care to go to 911 and local prosecutors rather than investigative units within state agencies.