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Questions remain as key disabilities committee kills work opportunities bill

July 13, 2018 4 comments

The Legislature’s family and disabilities rights committee has rejected H. 4541, a bill intended to ensure that developmentally disabled individuals get work opportunities in their state-funded day programs.

A staff member of the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee said the committee understands many people cannot find those work opportunities and is therefore discussing other possible ways of providing for them. But details regarding the policies being considered by the Children and Families Committee are sketchy, and the committee hasn’t yet responded to written questions about those ideas.

Barbara Govoni, the mother of a developmentally disabled man, had pushed for months for passage of H. 4541, which would have established optional work activities in DDS-funded day programs for up to four hours a day.

Many people in community-based day programs funded by the Department of Developmental Services have not been able to find such work since all sheltered workshops were closed in Massachusetts in 2016.

H. 4541 had been referred to the Children and Families Committee in May, and the committee effectively killed the measure last month by sending it to a study. With formal business in the current two-year legislative session ending on July 31, any similar legislation will have to be re-filed next January and go through the legislative process all over again.

It isn’t clear what the committee’s objections were to H. 4541. We’ve noted that some committee members appeared to have some misconceptions about the bill, including the idea that it would bring sheltered workshops back to the state.

In fact, the bill would have simply provided work activities for individuals who continued to desire those activities in their day programs, and who either could not or did not want to work in “integrated” or mainstream work settings. As we have reported, many of these people miss the work they used to do in their sheltered workshops, and are unable to relate to most day program activities that replaced that work.

At the same time, it appears that some DDS-funded day programs are, in fact, continuing to offer work activities to some residents. It’s not clear how many such programs currently exist.

A legislative aide to Representative Kay Khan, House chair of the Children and Families Committee, said earlier this week that the committee had been in touch with the Department of Developmental Services about the work opportunity issue, and that one proposal discussed was to hire an ombudsman in the Department who would help individuals and families locate existing day programs that offer work opportunities.

Funding remains a question

Another proposal under consideration by the Children and Families Committee and DDS is to establish new work opportunities programs at additional day programs without making such work opportunities a legislative requirement of DDS.

No details are yet available, however, on the scope of the Children and Families Committee’s or DDS’s proposals. Also unknown is how funding would be appropriated for an expansion of existing work opportunities programs, and what the amount of that funding might be.

The Legislature, unfortunately, has previously shown a reluctance to fund job training and other programs as part of the effort to replace sheltered workshop programs with “integrated” or mainstream work opportunities for DDS clients.

The administration of then Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature had set up a DDS line item in Fiscal 2015 to fund job training and other programs to help transfer clients from sheltered workshops into mainstream employment. That line item was initially funded with $1 million and was raised to $3 million the following year.

For Fiscal 2017, current Governor Charlie Baker, with the support of the DDS corporate providers, had proposed boosting the job development line item to $7.6 million; but the Legislature wouldn’t agree to the higher funding.

As of Fiscal 2018, the job development line item was eliminated and all funding for those efforts was transferred to the overall DDS Community Based Day and Work line item. It would seem the case needs to be made that additional funding is now needed for the day and work line item to fill the gap in work opportunity programs.

The solution needs to be comprehensive

Robin Frechette, an aide to Representative Brian Ashe, who filed H. 4541 on Govoni’s behalf, said she believes the Children and Families Committee co-chairs and other committee members “understand there is a gap in services to a particular group of individuals who are not able to work out in the community, and it needs to be addressed.”

But Frechette expressed a concern that simply having an ombudsman direct individuals whose day programs don’t offer work opportunities to different day programs that do offer those opportunities could be disruptive to those individuals.  She also said she was concerned that there may be few such programs available in the western part of the state where Barbara Govoni and her son live.

Earlier this week, we sent email queries to both the Children and Families Committee co-chairs and DDS to try to find out more about the proposals under consideration.

We have asked for records from DDS on the number of work opportunity programs that currently exist in DDS-funded, community-based day programs, and the number of work opportunity programs that DDS plans to establish.

We are also asking for the number of DDS clients who have been placed in “integrated employment” or mainstream workforce jobs and the number of DDS clients in community-based day programs since Fiscal 2014.

And we have asked DDS for its assessment as to whether there is a problem in providing suitable work opportunities for people in the DDS system who desire it, and whether some DDS clients are unable to function in mainstream work sites.

In addition, we’ve asked the co-chairs of the Children and Families Committee what the committee’s specific objections to H. 4541 were.

Despite the rejection of H. 4541, the opportunity remains for state legislators and policy makers to address the critical work opportunity problem facing developmentally disabled people across the state in an effective way.  We hope those legislators and policy makers will make a serious commitment to finding a workable solution; but we know from experience that deeds will be more important than words in that regard.

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COFAR renews request for DPPC report on woman’s death in wake of Boston Globe court ruling

Although the state’s Public Records Supervisor ruled in April that the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) can keep all investigative reports on the sudden death of a developmentally disabled woman secret, we believe a recent state Superior Court ruling has provided a basis for renewing our request for the records.

The decision by Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins in December 2017 upheld an appeal by The Boston Globe, which has been seeking mug shots and incident reports of police and other public officials who have been arrested on various criminal charges.

In our view, the Globe’s argument that the records it is seeking are public applies equally to the DPPC report and related records in the case of Karen McGowen, which COFAR has been seeking.

Ms. McGowen was killed in an apparent accident last November. She reportedly fell from a wheelchair lift while getting out of a van at her Pittsfield-based day program funded by the Department of Developmental Services.

The DPPC, which is charged with investigating or supervising investigations of abuse and neglect of disabled adults under the age of 60, confirmed it was investigating Karen McGowen’s death. On February 13, the DPPC denied COFAR’s request for the records in the case.

In her decision on our records appeal on April 20, Rebecca Murray, the state public records supervisor, focused on one exemption to the Public Records Law [known as “Exemption (a)”], which appears to give blanket authority for the enactment of statutes and regulations that can potentially exempt all records of particular state agencies from disclosure.

We are arguing in our renewed bid for the DPPC records that the DPPC’s enabling statute does not actually explicitly state that all of the Commission’s regulations are exempt from disclosure.

In her April 20 determination, Murray focused on the DPPC’s regulations, which, contrary to the enabling statute, do explicitly state that the Commission’s records are not public. The regulations would therefore appear to exempt all or most of the Commissions records from public disclosure.

But that apparent inconsistency between the DPPC’s enabling statute and regulations was not noted in Murray’s determination.

That appears to be the crux of the matter because a similar apparent inconsistency between a statute and regulations regarding the state’s CORI law is the basis of Judge Wilkins’ December decision in the Globe’s public records case. In his ruling, Wilkins upheld the Globe’s argument that the CORI law does not permit public officials to block the release of mug shots or police reports.

Wilkins also upheld the Globe’s argument that a regulation issued by the state agency that administers the CORI law is inconsistent with the law in that the regulation appears to justify withholding the records from disclosure.

“The regulation is invalid because ‘its provisions cannot in any appropriate way be interpreted in harmony with the legislative mandate,'” Wilkins’ decision stated.

State Attorney General Maura Healey and the City of Boston have appealed Wilkins’ ruling. Oral arguments in the appeal have not yet been scheduled, according to a reporter we talked to at the Globe.

With regard to the DPPC’s records, the Commission’s enabling statute states that: “The Commission shall promulgate regulations establishing procedures to exclude personally identifiable information regarding the subjects of investigations and to carry out the responsibilities of this chapter in such a way as to disclose as little personally identifiable information as possible.” (my emphasis)

However, the DPPC regulations seem to go well beyond that, stating that “the records of the Commission shall not be considered ‘public records’…”

The regulations go on to exempt from disclosure all “investigative materials” compiled by the DPPC. And the regulations state that the DPPC can determine that “the mere removal of identifying personal data would be insufficient to protect existing privacy interests, or that disclosure would not be in the public interest…”

Our argument is that the DPPC’s statute does not state that DPPC records are not public or that all investigative materials are exempt. And the statute doesn’t give the DPPC the discretion to determine that the agency can withhold all records because removing identifiable information would not protect privacy interests. The statute simply says the Commission should disclose as little identifiable information as possible.

As a result, it appears to us that the DPPC regulations are similarly invalid because their provisions cannot be interpreted in harmony with the DPPC’s legislative mandate.

In his decision in the Globe’s case, Judge Wilkins wrote that if any doubt remained about that type of inconsistency, the CORI statute “establishes a clear ‘presumption that the record sought is public’ and places a burden on the record’s custodian ‘to prove with specificity the exemption which applies’ to withheld documents.”

Similarly, we argue that the DPPC’s enabling statute establishes a clear presumption that the Commission’s records are public and that the Commission has the burden of proving with specificity the exemption that applies to withheld documents. In stating that the records of the Commission are not public, the regulations contradict the plain language of the statute.

So it is the burden of the DPPC to prove that any of the exemptions to the Public Records Law apply to the information we are seeking — particularly to completed reports. To the extent that personally identifiable information exists in those documents, the Commission can redact it.

Given that we think the DPPC is still likely to deny our renewed request, we hope that the Public Records Supervisor will then take Judge Wilkins’ decision into account in making a new determination in the matter. In doing so, the Public Records Supervisor should at least seek to review the materials we are requesting to determine the level of redactions that would be needed to comply with the DPPC’s enabling statute.

As we’ve stated before,  it’s disappointing that to the extent the DPPC does get involved in crucial investigations of abuse and neglect in the state’s human services system, it has taken the position that the products of its work must be kept secret.