Home > Uncategorized > Justice elusive in assaults of the intellectually disabled

Justice elusive in assaults of the intellectually disabled

When Sheila Paquette found out her intellectually disabled brother had apparently been viciously assaulted while on an outing from his group home last June, she had no idea of the long road she would be traveling to seek justice in the case.

What she — and we at COFAR as well — have learned is that there often isn’t a lot of interest among law enforcement authorities in prosecuting cases of abuse of the disabled, or in the mainstream media in reporting on it.  Paquette is a COFAR member and president of the Advocacy Network, a COFAR affiliate, which advocates on behalf of persons with intellectual disabilities in Massachusetts. 

Paquette’s brother, John Burns, was allegedly assaulted by John Saunders,  a group home staff worker, who allegedly poked his fingers in both of Burns’ eyes while he was toileting Burns.  The alleged incident occurred in the late morning at a vacation house on Cape Cod that was rented by the Center for Human Development, a state contractor operating Burns’ West Springfield-based group home. 

Burns was not examined by a doctor until the following day, when he was taken, at Paquette’s insistence, to Noble Hospital in Westfield.  Paquette said she was told by the medical staff there that Burns’ black eyes “were consistent with somebody taking their fingers and shoving them right into his eyes with sufficient force to cause blood to pool.” 

In an article in the Advocacy Network’s Fall 2010 newsletter, Paquette  wrote that she took the unusual step some three weeks after the alleged assault of personally filing a felony charge against Saunders of Assault and Battery on a Disabled Person.  “Until I filed the charge myself, the situation wasn’t taken seriously by the law enforcement authorities,” Paquette contends.

Photo taken of injuries to John Burns' eyes

Paquette isn’t alone in questioning our society’s commitment to ensuring justice or safety for persons with intellectual disabilities.   The New York Times reported yesterday that an inquiry by the paper found that New York State’s group home system of care “operates with scant oversight and few consequences for employees who abuse the vulnerable population.”

 An investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer described “a statewide law enforcement system (in Ohio) that routinely fails to investigate and punish those who abuse and neglect mentally retarded citizens.”   There’s not much reason to assume the situation is any different in Massachusetts.

Paquette said the alleged assault of her brother was witnessed by his  roommate, who said the incident was entirely unprovoked.   Later in the day, Burns and his roommate were driven back to West Springfield by another staff member of the group home.   Paquette said her brother  had to sit in the back seat with Saunders, the alleged perpetrator, the whole way. 

Paquette wrote that she was later told informally by an investigator that her brother spent the night in his group home moaning and crying.   But it wasn’t until he was sent the following day to his regular day program that someone from the program called Paquette’s other brother, Jim, who shares guardianship with her.  The caller said John Burns had two black eyes and was being sent back to his residence.

That was the first Paquette had heard about the injury to her brother.  She said she gathered her camera and a notebook and went to the group home to find her brother indeed with two big black eyes.  It was then that she began to experience the  first of many frustrations with the state’s system for responding to reports of abuse of the intellectually disabled.

After examining her brother, she asked the house manager to report the injury to the police and the Disabled Persons Protection Commission.  But when a police officer arrived at the house, he said he couldn’t investigate the incident because it had occurred in another town, outside his jurisdiction.

The DPPC was called immediately to investigate.  But the chronically under-funded agency handed the investigation over to the Department of Developmental Services (which funds the contractor running the group home).  

Fortunately, Paquette said,  the management of the group home did take the situation seriously.  Both the house manager and his supervisor questioned Burns’ roommate on separate occasions about what he saw, and were convinced his description of the event was consistent and credible.  Burns’ roommate is intellectually disabled, but is able to communicate.  CHD fired Saunders immediately, based on the assault allegation.

Nevertheless, the system has been slow and inefficient in tracking Saunders down.  Saunders failed to show up in Falmouth District Court for a pre-trial hearing that had been scheduled in October.   He is currently free on bail and is currently scheduled to appear in court on March 28.

In the meantime, Paquette has gotten little information about the case, she says, from the investigating authorities.  The DPPC, for instance, will not release the report done on the incident by DDS even to her because the matter is under criminal investigation.

“I’ve gotten nothing in writing from DPPC and nothing from CHD,” Paquette says.  “The DPPC says they can’t release anything to me because it’s in criminal court, but it’s in court only because I happened to file the charges.

“What did the DDS find out about this case?” Paquette adds.  “What did CHD write up?  If everyone in those agencies has seen those reports, why not  the victim, or at least why not me, who is the victim’s voice?  It’s almost surreal.  It’s just like fog.  I’m trying to stay calm, but I find myself getting more and more irritated.”

At COFAR, we’ve also been frustrated in trying to get media coverage of this case.  Although we notified the media around the state prior to a pre-trial hearing for Saunders that was scheduled for March 3, no one showed up to cover the hearing, and nothing appeared in any media publication about it.

Paquette said her goal isn’t “to put someone in jail for 30 days,  it’s to have a jury hear this case, to let people know about this problem (of abuse of the intellectually disabled),  and to make sure agencies check on their employees and make sure they can fire them if they are causing these types of problems.”

We all know that the media is facing its own financial issues and is cutting back on its coverage of issues in all facets of society.  Yet, in New York and Ohio, newspapers have recognized the importance of the problem of abuse of the disabled.  

After we sent follow-up emails to some local newspapers in the Cape Cod (location of the pre-trial hearing) and Springfield areas (location of Burns’ group home), we heard back from the editors of The Cape Cod Times and The Daily Hampshire Gazette.  We were told by the Cape Cod paper’s editor that their news editor is “considering”  a story about the incident that would run around the time of the next court date.  The editor of The Gazette said somewhat apologetically that West Springfield is outside of that paper’s circulation area, but otherwise, “we would have covered this type of story.”

The Springfield Republican initially assigned a reporter to the story, but nothing has appeared in the paper, and neither the reporter nor the executive editor have responded to our follow-up emails about the matter. 

Paquette noted, by the way, that 15 years ago, her brother was badly injured by a house manager in a different residence in Westfield.  At that time, The Boston Globe sent a reporter all the way out to Westfield to interview her, and Geraldo Rivera sent a television reporter as well.  Times have apparently changed.

Among the issues Paquette would like to find out is why the firm running the day program, in particular, didn’t bring her brother to the hospital immediately, but rather just sent him home after observing his black eyes. 

She also wants to know whether a State Police unit attached to the DPPC is conducting its own investigation of the case, separate from the Falmouth District Attorney’s Office.   It was only after she filed the charge  that the DPPC sent a Massachusetts State Trooper to her home to interview her, Paquette says. 

Paquette believes her decision to personally file the charge took many people by surprise.  “I don’t think it occurred to anyone I would go and file charges myself,” she says.  “I believe everyone was waiting around for DPPC and DDS to go do whatever they do.”  She said she was told by a DDS investigator that had she left the matter entirely in that agency’s hands, “this more than likely would have taken two years for this to get to the criminal court.  I short circuited the process, she says.”

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  1. March 14, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    We the willing , led by the unknowing that in there own way are so gratefull need to keep up the fight that state operated Facilites , and as a last resort Community homes have the training , but more important the caring . I’m not saying that this has never happened in State operated places , but in state operated places it is rare due to us the employess not feeling that we are just numbers getting a pay scale that makes a person feel like a number , or a body taking up space .

  2. Ken Mallory
    March 14, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    This is the nightmare that all of us who have listened to the promises of group homes to replace state facilities that do a far better and more responsible job of looking after our family members who are unable to take care of themselves. The mantra that group homes will solve everything is a disturbing canard and deserves outrage of those of us who know the truth.

  3. Ilani D'Alfonso
    March 15, 2011 at 12:15 am

    As a human being, and the mother/guardian of an adult man who is brain injured, I find the unprovoked assault on John Burns to be appaling, and inhumane. My son who lives in a group home and attends a day program, is unable to speak, and unable to communicate any inappropriate treatment to me. Therefore, I must totally trust his caregivers, most of whom have been trustworthy. However, there have been incidences in which he was not cared for or not treated appropriately. For instance, one staff member shouted at my son inappropriately. The management of the home took action, a report was filed, and the person was fired. On another occasion, my son was taken on an outing on the coldest day of the year in January while clothed only in a cotton t-shirt, cotton sweatshirt, cotton sweatpants, cotton socks and sneakers, but no coat. I was waiting for hime to arrive at
    his group home, when he walked from the van to my car clothed in this inappropriate manner. I complained about my son’s inappropriate clothing to the two negligent staff people, to the house manager on the following day and filed a complaint of neglect with DMR. The staff was then required to undergo training regarding appropriate clothing. On another occasion, the day program staff found bruises all over my son’s body. There was an investigation, but the conclusion was that my son had wrapped himself in a sheet and thus caused the bruises himself. I find this to be highly unlikely! Programs must carefully screen staff, and hire only the most caring, dependable, honest, patient and trustworthy individuals. Fortunately, most of the staff members I have known and now know do measure up. for my part, I make every effort to meet, establish a relationship and interact with all staff members, and I visit the residence weekly to monitor my son’s care. I am thankful that my son is generally well cared for, though there is room for improvement, and I am thankful that I am able to go about my life without worrying about him.

  4. Janet Marcus
    March 15, 2011 at 12:33 am

    Feel absolutely furious at the lack of action regarding Mr. Burns. This is an assault with a witness, and the evidence is photographed. The person who assaulted Mr. Burns will likely find work elsewhere or receive unemployment. It is an outrage that the sister is the one who had to carry the ball to get action taken. Am pleased that the group facility fired the “alleged” abuser, but they need to go further with the sister in supporting her. If newspapers won’t put articles in, television is certainly an option as is taking Mr. Burns to the statehouse & letting photographers know in advance. His experience there cannot be worse than what he has endured.

  5. John kassel
    March 15, 2011 at 1:32 am

    While waiting for the criminal justice system to prosecute a case and while waiting for local press interest, the family should consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss a civil action.

    • March 15, 2011 at 11:08 am

      By way of disclosure, as the author of the post above, I’m John Kassel’s brother. John is an experienced personal injury attorney in South Carolina and is not seeking to represent anyone here in Massachusetts. John, a lot of people will wonder about the cost of consulting an attorney. In these kinds of cases, will attorneys work on contingency? In other words, would they would be paid a portion of any settlement in a civil action, but would not charge the client directly?

  6. Doreen S.Rae
    March 15, 2011 at 2:18 am

    As a former Chairman of a local Human Rights comittee I am apalled with the abuse that these people are subjected to. I fought the Mass human rights union,and lost. The rights of the unionized abusive care givers superseeds the rights of the abused. I had to stop volunteering beacuse it was killing me… that it took years for a perpetrator to be convicted, and then they want to put the person on the stand to testify. You all know how some show their emotions… how could they possibly testify,its the law. Its just not correct.Please dont give up the fight.

  7. Sue S
    March 15, 2011 at 2:54 am

    I applaud Ms. Paquette’s actions and hope she is an inspiration to others. The best way to solve a problem (it is a problem) is to shine some light on it.

    COFAR is right–there is little to no interest by law enforcement or mainstream media–in seeing that justice is served where the abuse and neglect of the developmentally disabled are concerned. If someone had perpetrated this horrendous assault on a dog or a cat, it would be all over the TV. We’ve seen that time and time again. So much for our enlightened society.

    I suppose why would there be any interest, the DDS and DPPC, the people that we as taxpayers pay to ensure the well-being and safety of these most vulnerable people don’t seem to be forthcoming. DPPC, the people we pay to investigate these matter were only to happy to pass it along to DDS–the very same people who approved the vendor. Why is the person who filed the complaint on behalf of the victim not entitled to the report of the investigation. If Ms. Paquette is not entitled to it who is? What does it contain?????

    Why aren’t the typical advocates (ARC) making any noise about this?

    Good luck Ms. Paquette–give them hell–they deserve it.

  8. Laura Bradley
    March 15, 2011 at 3:02 am

    These community residences will hire any warm body willing to work for the developmentally disabled. What are their standards?. Are there references? Is their training? this criminal behavior is barbaric, our loved ones deserve safety, happiness, and kindness. My sister gets this type of wonderful care at Wrentham Developmental Center. We have no worries, and there is a safety net in place should a violent criminal ever try to masquerade as a compassionate direct care worker.

  9. John kassel
    March 15, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Most attorneys interested in prosecuting a case like this would likely take the matter on a contingent fee basis. That means any fee would only be due at the end of the case if there was a recovery. No recovery, no fee. In addition to fees there is the matter of costs. Costs are things the lawyer must cut a check for…such as experts, depositions, travel, etc. Again, most lawyers will advance the costs of litigation, reimbursing the law firm upon a recovery. In the event of no recovery, the client should ask who bears the costs.

  10. Ed
    March 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    My wife and I are co-guardians for her sister, who once lived at the former Belchertown State School, which was a hell-hole. While conditions in today’s ICF-MRs and community homes, both state and private, are vastly improved, abuse of this very vulnerable population still occurs. My sister-in-law has been both the victim of abuse and the recipient of excellent care in each type of setting. Guardians and parents can rely on neither the bureaucracy of the Department of Developmental Disabilities, nor the legal system, nor the mainstream media to assure that violators will be identified, removed, and punished. The strongest deterrent we have is vigilance and involvement, and the efforts of organizations like COFAR and Advocacy Network to bring these cases to light.

  11. Rich J.
    March 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Why isn’t the typical advocates (ARC) making any noise about this? This was asked by Sue S. I also ask this question? Possibly if the ARC put a focus on abuse in vendor group homes things would improve. Possibly the ARC/other vendor organizations could focus on strategies that would improve and make vendor group home more accountable for ISP implementation, nutrition, training, incidents, health, safety, etc. How about far more oversight by DDS? Unannounced visits by DDS case workers, not just once every two months (which is now by appointment) and longer than a quick hour, that is not oversight that is checking the box you were there. How about insuring Day Programs report what may seem simple to some like coming dressed with inappropriate clothing for the season, not enough or not good food, coming in sick, etc, etc, etc to the DDS case worker or DPPC or both. When you see something that is a sign it can and many times leads to much more, at least have someone look into it. Day Programs need to report more of what they encounter on a day to day basis. The Motto should be if unsure report, better to report and find things are OK then not to report until someone is injured seriously or dies. The Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) is so under funded (has the ARC/vendor community strongly advocated for DPPC funding, not that I remember). DPPC does not have the resources to do all if not most of the investigations they have to pass the investigations on to DDS. Ah– DDS these are the folks that give the contracts to these vendors – Ah–DDS are the folks that are suppose to have oversight of vendors– Ah—DDS are the folks that are to insure the vendor complies with the contract (remember they selected the vendor) – Is that not a major conflict of interest and certainly it taints any investigation outcome. Transparency in DDS that is a myth that they promote…. It is more like the fox is in the hen house…….

    I wish Ms. Paquette the best and hope others follow suit if things don’t change and that becomes the only way to get justice!

  12. Mary Ann Ulevich
    March 15, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    I too am incensed by this story. Our most vulnerable family members, who are generally trusting, continue to be at risk. I am struggling with how to proceed in finding a placement for my 60 year old cousin who has lived at Templeton for 38 years. I promised his mother that I would look after him…I naively thought that the “system” cared about him, too. We need to advocate for many things, including increased compensation for those direct staff caring for our loved ones, hopefully this will decrease turnover and improve oversight and supervision.

  13. Karen Olson
    March 16, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Good for Ms. Paquette, let’s encourage her as she shines a light into the darkness. It’s unfortunate that those of us who rely on ‘the system’ to care for our loved ones are left flailing in, if not fighting ‘the system’ when things go awry.
    Having spent many months petitioning DDS for a more appropriate placement for our son, I filed a complaint of neglect and abuse with the DPPC. It was then ‘passed’ to DDS to investigate because a lack of medical attention, unreported physical restraints and filthy living conditions didn’t meet DPPC qualification.
    Following months of investigation, DDS substantiated issues and laid out resolutions that the Vendor was required to implement. Deadlines passed (10 months from the initial complaint) and no ‘required’ written response from the vendor. MONTHS LATER and NO ONE seemed to be able to answer who/if anyone DDS was holding responsible for follow through and implementation.
    Hmmm… DDS contracts with the vendor, pays the vendor, investigates complaints against the vendor and then showed little ability (concern?) to require them to meet a timeline that they themselves (DDS) set! Wonder why we are concerned, confused and feel the need to FIGHT the system for the care our loved ones deserve!
    Thankfully our story has a happy ending and our son was eventually moved to a wonderful home with caring and well trained/supervised care givers. It’s very unfortunate ‘the system’ is such that he had to suffer many months, well beyond the recognition that his needs were not being met.
    Thank God for Cofar and those that were there to guide and support us when we had no clue where to turn, and little faith that we could make a difference.

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