O.D. Heck One Year Later

  By A. G. Moore   July 5, 2012

More than a year ago I posted a blog, O. D. Heck and My Brother Everett. The post was prompted by the tragic death of a boy, Jonathan Carey, who was in the care of O.D. Heck Developmental Center, a state residential facility located in Schenectady, N Y. Although my brother never resided at Heck, he did live for many years at another notorious institution, Letchworth Village.

Over the past year, Governor Andrew Cuomo has worked for the establishment of the Justice Center for People with Special Needs. This new oversight agency is supposed to protect the rights of the disabled in New York State as its predecessor did not. While the motive behind the creation of this agency seems well-intentioned, some advocates for the disabled express concern that the Justice Center will fall prey to old practices.

Michael Carey, for example, the father of Jonathan Carey, feels that abuse within an institutional context should have the same accountability as abuse outside of an institution: law enforcement agencies must be notified and must be in charge of any investigation. Without that external accountability, Mr. Carey believes, there will not be the rigorous enforcement standards that an objective DA or police force might bring. This lack of enforcement integrity was an essential flaw of the prior state agency, the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities. This Commission habitually covered up and ignored reported instances of abuse. The death of Jonathan Carey and mistreatment of innumerable others was the result.

Unfortunately, the Justice Center, as currently designed, will have its own internal mechanism for investigating incidents of abuse and/or criminal behavior. The existence of this internal mechanism sets the community of disabled persons apart from the rest of us. We, those who do not reside in state facilities, have the protection of law, which is enforced by objective law enforcement officers. The disabled will not be afforded this constitutional right.

The flaw in this abuse review process becomes more evident with an examination of the way in which the Justice Center was conceived. The chief architect of the new center was Clarence Sundram. The official New York State biography of Mr. Sundram describes his background:

For 20 years, (Sundram) served as the founding Chairman of the New York State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled, an independent state oversight agency charged with advising the governor and legislature, investigating deaths, child abuse, patient abuse, and financial fraud and abuse in programs serving persons with mental disabilities. Mr. Sundram has also served as Vice-Chairman of the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Protection & Advocacy Systems (now National Disability Rights Network).

So, Mr. Sundram, who has been charged with creating an agency to reform deficiencies of the past, was himself the architect of that flawed past. He was also responsible for overseeing state policy with regard to care and protection of the disabled. Naming Mr. Sundrum to oversee the design of the Justice Center is more like continuity than change.

Most provisions of the new law that authorize the establishment of the Justice Center will not go into effect until June of 2013. Legislators can, and must, amend the law. The current statute falls short and perhaps even does harm because it gives the illusion that real change is about to take place.

I don’t see it. If the same bureaucrats are in charge of the new system who had a vested interest in the old system, how can reform take place? In order for true change to occur, there must be new blood, a new perspective. There must be a revolution in attitude.

I ask the legislators to give the disabled and their families a shot at responsible care. Shake up the establishment–the best way to do that is to clean house and make the new household answerable to a higher authority: the police, the DA and the courts.

Related Readings

New York State Official Website


New York Times

Special Needs Lifeline

City Wide Mental Health Project


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