State's New Justice Center Will Open Sunday
Agency To Probe Abuse Of Disabled Under State's Care
By Jon Campbell Gannett News Service June 28, 2013
From the outside, the red brick building with nondescript white columns and no major signage could be easily missed.
At 12:01 a.m. Sunday, though, the suburban Albany building will house the state’s newest agency: the Justice Center for the Protection of People With Special Needs.
It’s a year-in-the-making endeavor meant to combat abuse in the state’s system of care for the developmentally disabled.
State officials will flip the switch on the new $45 million agency and a 24/7 hotline for reporting care-related complaints. The program was approved by lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year after a series of high-profile abuse cases and a low rate of referrals to law enforcement were uncovered by The New York Times.
The agency, which has its own special prosecutor and is expected to employ 230 when fully staffed, is anticipating 70,000 complaints each year. It has a three-part mission: Investigate complaints and prosecute if necessary, weed out improper caregivers and advocate for proper care.
“We believe this is a unique agency with a focus on law enforcement, but also a focus and a charge to do advocacy work on behalf of people with special needs,” said Jeffrey Wise, the Justice Center’s executive director.
Wise and other top Justice Center officials led members of the media on a tour Friday of the agency’s new facility, which will be staffed every minute of every day beginning Sunday. Wise said he and members of his staff will personally be on hand at 12:01 a.m. to ensure the hotline opens smoothly.
The law creating the Justice Center was pushed by Cuomo last year. It allows the agency to receive complaints and investigate major allegations, while the special prosecutor - Patricia Gunning, formerly the Special Victims Unit chief in the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office - will be given authority to press charges, if necessary. The jurisdiction includes all nonprofit homes and centers that contract with the state and provide care on its behalf.
The two-floor facility has space for 80 employees manning the complaint hotline and about 20 investigators, though some will be stationed in various parts of the state. It has a fully equipped evidence room, with a walk-in cage under lock and key, and recorders, mobile electronic equipment and various other tools for collecting clues.
Across the street and 100 yards north is a constant reminder of the type of abuse that, in part, led to the need for change. A picture of Jonathan Carey, a developmentally disabled 13-year-old who was killed while in state care in 2007, adorns a trailer outside the office of the foundation run by his father, Michael.
Michael Carey is an outspoken advocate for the developmentally disabled and a constant presence at the state Capitol. He is a critic of the Justice Center, which he fears could act as a tool for the state to cover up its own misdeeds and lapses in care.
“It’s the state investigating the state,” he said. “It’s not an independent entity, so it continues to keep the pattern going of self-policing. Calls of physical and sexual abuse - which are extremely large in numbers at subcontracted facilities - are not being reported to 911, they’re going to another state agency.”
But Wise pointed to the the special prosecutor, which gives the agency an outlet for directly prosecuting criminal action. Previously, workers who were the subject of complaints were often transferred to different facilities.
The agency will also be charged with monitoring data regarding abuse and care and issuing reports while advising the governor and Legislature on legislative changes that should be made.
“We’re looking to protect people through enforcement and proper standards of care,” Wise said.
“We’re going to remove people who don’t belong in the direct-care system. It really is all-around.”