Four New York Congressional representatives are calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the state Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.
The three Republican reps, Lee Zeldin and Peter King of Long Island, Elise Stefanik of Saratoga County and Tom Reed of the Southern Tier, say the Delmar-based Justice Center is failing to protect individuals with disabilities and Medicaid recipients who have died under state care.
“We write today regarding the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs’ inability to ensure the protection of individuals with special needs,” states a letter by the three reps to the Office of the Assistant Attorney General in Washington. “Many allegations relating to staff abuses, patient neglect, sexual assaults and even patient deaths have been reported, yet the center consistently fails to act in an appropriate manner and continues to operate without any necessary additional oversight or scrutiny.”
The center was created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, in 2012 and formalized with finding by the state Legislature a year later to investigate all instances of abuse and/or neglect in state run and state funded facilities.
It has come under legal and has seen three convictions thrown out based on the premise it does not have the authority to prosecute cases. Rather, that power, according to the state Constitution, is left only to elected district attorneys and the state attorney general.
On the flip side, there are those who think the Justice Center does not do enough to investigate complaints of abuse and neglect and finds fault with a state agency investigating another state agency rather than an outside entity like local police departments and independently elected district attorneys.
“Instead of referring the overwhelming majority of cases to law enforcement officials, the center allowed facilities to conduct internal reviews, which often times included disciplinary actions unbefitting of the allegations,” according to the letter. “In fact, through information obtained by Freedom of Information Law requests filed, the New York Department of Health revealed that it never received a case from the Justice Center between June 30, 2013, and April 1, 2016.”
The letter cites records obtained and published by the New York Times that indicate only 5 percent of the 13,000 cases of abuse recorded in state-operated facilities for the disabled were referred to law enforcement.
It also cites a story in Newsday about the center’s former special prosecutor, Patricia Gunning. While she was employed at the center, she investigated strangulation assaults at state facilities but the findings were rejected by state officials.
“The state Justice Center is ensuring that staggering numbers of sexual assault crimes and deaths of children and adults with disabilities are covered-up internally and never prosecuted,” said Michael Carey, president of the Jonathan Carey Foundation. “The Justice Center must be stopped, it is directly involved in a massive Medicaid fraud scheme by protecting dangerous facilities that are misappropriating massive amounts of federal tax dollars.”
A statement by the Justice Center, published in a number of media outlets, blasts the reps and their call for an investigation.
“The letter to the Justice Department shamefully politicizes issues relating to some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers and relies on numerous false claims and inaccuracies regarding the Justice Center operations,” said center spokeswoman Christine Buttigieg in the statement. “After a thorough investigation and review the Justice Center pursues criminal charges in those cases where the evidence supports further action. In addition, the district attorneys across the state are notified of every single abuse and neglect case that is reported to the Justice Center and are free to pursue charges as they see fit.”
Zelden fired back, saying the Justice Center is about “avoiding justice while individuals with disabilities are harmed without adequate protection, due process or recourse.”
“The Justice Center’s visceral reaction to accountability and oversight highlights exactly why a federal investigation is absolutely imperative,” he wrote. “The Justice Center’s failures have been widely reported, and their arrogant attempt to deny the truth and the cold facts is a poignant reminder that when protecting themselves is in conflict with protecting individuals with disabilities, New Yorkers with disabilities are the ones who will lose out and be harmed and abandoned.”