Home > Uncategorized > COFAR asks state attorney general to take a more active role in protecting the developmentally disabled

COFAR asks state attorney general to take a more active role in protecting the developmentally disabled

COFAR members met last week with officials in the state Attorney General’s Office to raise concerns about an apparent lack of focus by the state’s chief law enforcement agency on abuse and neglect of persons with developmental and other disabilities.

While Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has lately taken an active role in scrutinizing and penalizing operators of nursing homes that provide substandard care to elderly residents of those facilities, the same cannot be said of her office when it comes to investigating corporate providers of group homes for the developmentally disabled.

In March, Healey announced a series of settlements totaling $540,000 with seven nursing home operators for violations of standards of care and conditions in those facilities. In light of the attorney general’s actions and the substantial media coverage that resulted from them, COFAR asked Healey’s office for records of similar fines, settlements or penalties levied against Department of Developmental Services providers from Fiscal 2015 to the present.

In response, the AG provided records of just two cases in which penalties were imposed on DDS providers. In one case in 2017, a provider, the Cooperative for Human Services, Inc., was required by the AG to pay $19,000 in restitution to employees who had been denied overtime payments, and to pay a $4,000 fine to the state.

In the second case in 2018, Triangle, Inc. was required to donate $123,500 to charities for having paid less than the minimum wage to participants in a former sheltered workshop, without having a proper minimum wage waiver. The provider was also required to pay $6,500 to the AG’s Office to cover administrative costs.

So, that’s seven actions taken by the AG totaling more than half a million dollars against nursing home providers in just one month, versus two actions totaling $153,000 taken against DDS providers in the past five years.

Moreover, the larger of the two actions against the DDS providers was for paying subminimum wages to sheltered workshop participants — something that is seen as a problem only by opponents of sheltered workshops themselves.

As we’ve said many times, we see the real wage problem as the failure to pay adequate compensation to direct-care workers in the DDS system. That is an issue that the AG should be investigating, along with the excessive salaries paid in many cases to provider executives.

Investigating abuse and neglect

As for investigating abuse and neglect in the DDS system, the AG appears to have done nothing at least since Fiscal 2015. (We had originally asked for a list of penalties and other actions taken against DDS and its providers going back to Fiscal 2000. The AG responded that that request was overly broad in time and scope. As a result, we narrowed the request to DDS providers since Fiscal 2015.)

Certainly, the AG’s Office doesn’t present the only option for oversight of the DDS system. The Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) might be viewed as the most logical state agency to investigate abuse and neglect. That agency received more than 11,800 calls alleging abuse in Fiscal 2018 — a 74% increase from Fiscal 2010.

But with only four investigators on its staff, the DPPC is unable to investigate more than a tiny fraction of those calls, and must refer the vast majority of them to the Departments of Developmental Services and Mental Health, and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. As we have noted, those agencies face a conflict of interest in investigating abuse and neglect within their own systems.

The state Legislature should also be exercising investigative oversight of the DDS system; but the last major report from a legislative committee on abuse and neglect in facilities run by DDS and its providers was done in the 1990s.

Partly under prodding from COFAR, the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee did hold two informational hearings last year on abuse and neglect of DDS clients. But it is unclear that the Committee intends to follow up on those hearings or even whether the hearings were, or are, part of a larger review.

The Children and Families Committee has never responded to questions from COFAR about the scope of its review, if any, of DDS. On Monday, I sent yet another email to the chief of staff of Representative Kay Khan, the House chair of the committee, asking what the status currently is of the committee’s review, and whether any additional hearings are planned. I haven’t yet received a response to that message.

AG officials acknowledge they could do more 

In last week’s meeting with the AG officials, COFAR President Tom Frain, who called in; Vice President Anna Eves, and I raised concerns about the general lack of oversight of the privatization of care of the developmentally disabled in the state, and the high level of abuse and neglect as well as financial mismanagement in the system.

The three officials from Healey’s office — Jonathan Miller, chief of public protection and advocacy; Mary Beckman, chief of healthcare and fair competition; and Abigail Taylor, assistant attorney general for child and youth protection — acknowledged that the AG hasn’t done much in recent years in terms of oversight of the DDS system; but they said there may be opportunities for them to do more. Beckman said DDS clients fit within the AG’s purview, which is to protect vulnerable populations.

While none of the three officials were specific about what the AG could or might do, Miller talked about looking at “potential tools in our toolkit.”

The AG’s dual role

Beckman acknowledged that the AG’s Office is hampered in its oversight efforts by its dual roles as both a law enforcement and investigative agency, and as the state’s lawyer.

In fact, as the state’s defense attorney, the AG has consistently taken the state’s side in disputes since 1990’s over the closures of DDS state-run developmental centers and the expansion of the privatized group home system.

Nevertheless, the AG has penalized DDS providers, at least in the two instances cited above, so it clearly has the authority to do so. The key will be whether there is any follow-up by the AG’s Office to the general statements made in last week’s meeting with us.

It is unfortunate that despite the many state agencies with the authority and responsibility to investigate the care and conditions of people with developmental and other disabilities in Massachusetts, those persons appear to have fallen through the cracks in that system.

Somehow that large collection of institutional resources has not been enough to get the job done. In the case of the AG’s Office, we think the resources have so far been misdirected. We hope the Office will correct that.

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  1. Anonymous
    May 27, 2019 at 6:07 am

    Thank you COFAR.
    DDS needs the attention of the AG. I have several written and email documents which clearly demonstrate there is a need for investigation and oversight of DDS.
    There is much more data on issues with nursing homes partly because of the role of the volunteer ombudsman who visits residents of nursing homes in MA once a week, shares resident concerns with nursing home facility, follows up the next week to make sure issues are resolved, and DPH follows up on serious concerns. Because of this program, residents feel empowered with their rights, and in control of their day, once again. Families breathe a sigh of relief. This may sound too good to be true, but it is!
    It is absolutely amazing what a little oversight can do.
    As for the cost of this oversight, close to nil. Ombudsman volunteer.

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