Rep. Lee Zeldin at a meeting in Calverton in March 2019. Photo: Denise Civiletti

While many workers do an outstanding job caring for individuals with disabilities in our communities, I have also heard many deeply disturbing stories about victims of neglect and abuse. The current system is failing them and improvements are desperately and urgently necessary. Dozens of allegations related to staff abuse, patient neglect, sexual assault and even death have been reported over the last few years.

That’s why, in December, I was joined by New York representatives Peter King, Elise Stefanik, and Tom Reed in demanding accountability for the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs for their failure to protect individuals with disabilities and Medicaid recipients who have died under state care, including nine who died while in state care in Suffolk County since 2013. The Department of Justice responded stating they would “carefully consider the information in determining whether to open an investigation,” but just since December, there have been multiple additional instances of abuse that have come to light.

The mission of the Justice Center is “supporting and protecting the health, safety, and dignity of all people with special needs and disabilities through advocacy of their civil rights, prevention of mistreatment, and investigation of all allegations of abuse and neglect so that appropriate actions are taken.”

This mission should be carried out by investigating all reports of abuse and neglect in group homes, conducting rigorous audits of providers, pursuing administrative sanctions on staff who fail to carry out this mission and working concurrently with district attorney offices to prosecute the subjects of these investigations.

For example, Joseph Barouch is a 23-year-old man with autism who experienced traumatic abuse at a home in East Islip, where he fell and fractured his neck after being forced to run on a treadmill. Richard Garnett, the group home worker charged with the crime, had a history of abuse at past facilities where he was suspected of committing multiple acts of abuse against others. If only the Justice Center had ensured the execution of thorough background checks before placing Mr. Garnett in other group homes, Joseph’s injuries could have been avoided.

Raymond Berrios is another young man whose family submitted complaints to the Justice Center including allegations of malnutrition, misadministration of medication, and repeated acts of neglect and sexual abuse. While the Center performed investigations, one staff member was fired but the necessary corrective measures to ensure that multiple cases of abuse like this would not happen again were never fulfilled.

The cases of Raymond and Joseph are just two of too many incidents across the state that have surfaced over the Center’s inability to prevent and respond to neglect and abuse in group homes. The bottom line is individuals with disabilities deserve full and equal protection under the law, and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure they receive it.

The New York governor and State Legislature must provide more oversight over the Justice Center. Additional tools must be delivered for investigations as well as greater prosecutorial authority. It’s the Justice Center’s responsibility to thoroughly and swiftly complete investigations, ensure proper background checks are being done and abusers are being blacklisted.

The Justice Center’s vision as stated on their website is “People with special needs shall be protected from abuse, neglect, and mistreatment.” However, since the Justice Center was founded in 2013, it has not taken these reports seriously enough. It’s negligent and extremely dangerous for the patients whose family members and loved ones have put their trust in the Justice Center to care for them.

The Justice Center has a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, and it is imperative that reforms are implemented immediately to prevent future cases of abuse suffered by individuals with disabilities. It needs to ensure cases are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, working with District Attorneys across the state in light of ongoing litigation regarding the Center’s prosecutorial authority.

However, rather than embrace and address the need for improvement and accountability at the Justice Center, they continue to publicly attack and try to discredit victims and anyone who sticks up for them, as we have witnessed each and every time we’ve raised concerns. The Justice Center’s visceral reaction to accountability and oversight is alarming. Instead of sidestepping, they need to better step up to the plate and truly protect New Yorkers with disabilities.

We must finally secure justice for individuals with disabilities who have become victims while in state care as well as closure for their families and loved ones. The Justice Center must take every possible measure to ensure abuses in these cases are not only investigated, but that systemic reforms are implemented to prevent additional acts of abuse.

Rep. Lee Zeldin represents the First Congressional District of New York in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Lee Zeldin represents the First Congressional District of New York, serving on both the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.