State-operated services used by 126,000 state residents with developmental disabilities — 42,462 of whom are located in New York City — may soon see major reconstruction.

After a March article in The New York Times explored widespread abuse in shelters and group homes for the developmentally disabled, policymakers are mulling over how to best create a safe environment for the vulnerable people who use those services.

The Assembly is considering a bill that would create a statewide registry to allow care-providing agencies to check if job applicants had previously been terminated elsewhere because of abuse or neglect.

But at a May 3 City Council committee hearing, a more sweeping reform was contemplated: ending the role of state-run group homes and turning the entire system over to non-profit providers.

Disturbing revelations

The current system offers varied independent group home living services to people with developmental disabilities. Some of the facilities are owned by the state, and others are non-profit organizations licensed by state authorities.

The Times article detailed several particularly jarring incidents among 399 cases of abuse involving 233 workers in the close to 2,000 state-sponsored group homes. As the story developed and newly-installed Gov. Andrew Cuomo learned of its findings, Cuomo ousted the leadership of the New York State Department for People with Developmental Disabilities and appointed Courtney Burke as OPWDD's commissioner.

On March 30, following the publication of the article, Burke announced immediate measures to reform the institutions under state jurisdiction. These included the introduction of an Incident Management Team to follow-up on reports of abuse, tighter standards for hiring caretaking applicants, providing "respect training" to current and future employed caretakers, visits from agency leadership to examine care quality in state-operated homes and the establishment of a review panel to administer regulations more consistently.

In addition to these reforms of state services, Burke plans to offer the same guidance to non-profit providers who offer services to the developmentally disabled in order to also decrease abuse in those systems.

At the May 3 hearing of the City Council's Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, and Disability Services, the Assembly measure attracted wide support. Peter Pierri, executive director of the InterAgency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies, Inc. — a group affiliated with private non-profit care organizations— said that the fingerprinting and other background checking measures currently in place are not sufficient in preventing the employment of past abusers.

Michael Carey, an advocate for New York state disability laws, concurred with that assessment. Carey helped to pass Jonathan's Law after his son was killed as a result of abusive caretakers at a school for the developmentally disabled. The law grants parents and guardians access to the care records of their children.

"A lot of times they're not doing appropriate background checks, including employee background checks. You can avoid a lot of this by just hiring the proper people," Carey said. "One of the guys who was involved in my son's death was fired from four private institutions before he was hired at the state institution where my son was," he said.

Sea-change ahead?

Committee Chairman Oliver Koppell said that the Council would support the state bill requiring stricter pre-employment screening. But Koppell also raised the issue of a far greater change: getting the state out of the group home business entirely.

"My general view is against outsourcing where possible," Koppell said during the meeting. "But here it does seem, at least based on the Times' article, that control by the state is not working very well."

Pierri said that the movement towards voluntary non-profit agencies providing these services makes a lot of sense, contending there is a level of conflict of interest in the state-operated and state-regulated organizations.

"When you provide a service and you are the same institute that's responsible for regulating a service, I think that sometimes you're going to have some difficulties with which hat you're wearing," he said. He added that nonprofits were less likely to suffer the state's problem of having administrators located hundreds of miles away from the homes under their supervision.

But Carey said he doesn't believe that it makes a difference who provides the care, but something must be done to change the way it is delivered. "I think there are major problems within the state facilities," he said. "But those state problems do carry over into the private sector."

Nicole Weinstein, OPWDD spokesperson, said such a shift is a possibility in the future, for which the agency is still formulating plans. "OPWDD is in the process of seeking ideas that will form the basis of a proposal for a major reform of its current service structure," she said.