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ALBANY – The Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs – a state agency charged with investigating disabled people in state run or funded facilities – has created a Sexual Abuse Response Team to handle allegations of sexual abuse.
“New York state was the first in the nation to recognize the need for an agency dedicated solely to protecting the rights of people with special needs,” said Executive Director Denise Miranda. “Now we will set another precedent by dedicating a specially-trained group to investigate these very serious cases and hold those responsible accountable.”
Current Justice Center investigators with criminal and non-criminal backgrounds will undergo training in how to handle sex abuse cases before they are named to SART, according to a press release.
“SART will also develop procedures and protocols to ensure the quality and integrity of the sexual abuse investigation and prosecution,” according to a press release sent by the Justice Center. “The Justice Center’s special prosecutor will have an enhanced role in all SART cases in order to pursue any potential criminal charges.”
Since March 2017, the Justice Center has seen three sexual abuse cases thrown out of court by three different judges all saying it does not have jurisdiction to prosecute cases. Rather, said rulings written by Albany County judges Thomas Breslin, William Carter and Roger McDonough, that power is left to duly elected county district attorneys and the state attorney general.
While the Justice Center did file a “notice” of appeal, doing so is merely procedural and just leaves the door open for a potential appeal. It has not yet followed through with an actual appeal of the decision.
The new procedures and protocols will include a round the clock notification process, and the establishment of agreements and procedures with service providers to ensure access to emergency medical care.
The Justice Center will also focus on education, outreach and preventative measures to reduce the rate of sexual abuse, educate the workforce and help victims come forward.
Data from the Department of Justice shows the disabled are seven times more likely to get abused than the national average.
“Cases involving the sexual abuse of adults and children can be difficult to investigate and prosecute, often more so when the victim presents with special needs or a disability,” said Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who is president-elect of the state District Attorneys Association. “The addition of this newly formed investigative team at the Justice Center will allow for a focused effort on their mission and will help build better cases for prosecution.”
Part of the three decisions mentioned above are based on a minority Court of Appeals decision written by Justice Jenny Rivera which said, in part, the Justice Center must work under the jurisdiction of the elected county district attorneys. Since the Justice Center is the creation of the governor and the Legislature, any prosecutorial authority given in that manner is a violation of the state Constitution, according to the judges.
The level of involvement the local DAs have is crucial to staying within Constitutional confines, according to a brief written by the state Attorney General’s Office under then AG Eric Schneiderman. Just informing the local DA’s office of a case in its jurisdiction is not enough, according to the brief. Rather, the DA must give explicit permission and maintain sole responsibility for the prosecution.
Rivera’s opinion did not matter, though, because the jurisdictional issue was not brought up in the lower courts and the higher court judges tossed the appeal on that technicality. It has yet to be seen whether or not the Justice Center follows through with a formal appeal of the three cases tossed out in Albany County.
Michael Pollok, a defense attorney for Mirina Viviani, the first sex abuse case to get thrown out, said he has not received notice of a formal appeal.
Justice Center representatives would not return a request for further comment.