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When it comes to investigating abuse of the developmentally disabled, it all appears to go around and around

November 25, 2019 2 comments

Charles Dickens named his ultimate bureaucratic agency the Circumlocution Office because the public’s business just got passed around in circles in the department.

At least some of that appears to be going on among state agencies when it comes to investigating abuse of persons with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts, according to a review of public records of three state agencies by COFAR.

It appears to be the case with all forms of abuse that the referral and investigation process starts and ends with the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

In fact, one of the agencies involved – the Executive Office of Elder Affairs (EOEA) –  referred 25 years ago to the process of investigating abuse involving DDS and Department of Mental Health clients as “circuitous,” and stated that attempts to change it through legislation had not been successful in the previous two years. That memo, which we recently received from EOEA, was written in 1994.

COFAR requested and reviewed data and other information on investigations from DDS, the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), and EOEA of financial and other types of abuse. We requested the information from each agency under the state’s Public Records Law.

How the circular process appears to work

The circularity appears to start with the fact that DDS is required by state regulations to report all abuse allegations to DPPC, the state’s only independent agency for investigating abuse of disabled adults. But DPPC lacks jurisdiction to investigate financial abuse, in particular, according to the agency’s assistant general counsel, so it refers those cases back to DDS to investigate.

DPPC also lacks jurisdiction to investigate abuse of the elderly, so it refers allegations of all types of abuse involving persons over the age of 59 to EOEA. But EOEA then also refers those same allegations to DDS to investigate if they involve persons living in DDS facilities, according to EOEA officials we talked to and to the 25-year-old memo.

In the May 6, 1994 memo, then Secretary of Elder Affairs Franklin Olivierre stated that under a then newly effective policy, EOEA would send all abuse allegations referred to it from DPPC to EOEA’s “protective service agencies” for investigation. However, if an allegation involved anyone living in either a DDS or DMH-funded residence, the protective service agencies were advised to contact either DDS or DMH, and, in either case, to “screen out” the allegation, meaning not to investigate it themselves.

“Although both Elder Affairs and DPPC recognize that this system is circuitous, attempts to change the statute through legislation have not been successful in the past two years,” Olivierre wrote.

A bill filed by DPPC at that time would have allowed the DPPC to investigate all reports of abuse of persons in DDS and DMH facilities. That bill never passed, and the circuitous referral process continues to exist to this day.

In other words, while abuse of the developmentally disabled largely occurs in DDS-funded facilities, it is DDS that ultimately ends up investigating most of the cases.

Our diagram below depicts the circular flow of referrals of abuse allegations involving victims with developmental disabilities, according to the records we reviewed.

Abuse referrak flow chart3

Beyond the apparent conflict of interest that DDS has in investigating fraud in its own funded and managed programs, it isn’t clear that DDS has the resources to adequately investigate those cases and all of the other forms of abuse that get referred to it.

No centralized record keeping or tracking

It’s not easy to track the circularity of the abuse referral and investigation process because there appears to be no central record keeping or tracking system for abuse complaints and investigations, whether financial or other forms of abuse. Each agency keeps some of the records regarding the abuse investigation process, but no agency appears to have them all.

For instance, while DDS, as noted, is required to refer all abuse allegations it receives to  DPPC, that latter agency tracks the outcomes of investigations only of those allegations that fall under its jurisdiction.

If DPPC receives an allegation of abuse involving a victim with an intellectual disability 60 years old or older, or receives any allegation involving financial abuse, the agency keeps records of the referral of those cases, but not the outcomes.

DDS has two investigative divisions, only one of which even keeps records on the number of abuse allegations reported to it or referred by it to DPPC, according to a response we received from DDS to a Public Records Request.

EOEA, meanwhile, has no records on the number of abuse allegations it receives involving people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, according to a response from an official in that agency regarding a Public Records Request.

Also, EOEA only began keeping records on the number of abuse cases referred to it by DPPC in Fiscal 2018. Similarly, EOEA only began keeping records in Fiscal 2018 on the number of cases it refers to DDS.

DDS, for its part, said it has no records on cases referred to it by EOEA. 

Tracking financial abuse referrals

Within DDS, it appears there are two separate divisions or units that are concerned with  abuse issues – the Investigation Division, which was established in 1993, and the Bureau of Program Integrity (BPI), which was established in 2018.

According to DDS records, the Investigation Division has a staff of 33, including 26 full-time staff investigators.

The DDS BPI only has 3 people on its staff — a director of internal controls, a senior manager, and a risk analyst. The purpose of the BPI is to support the Investigation Division in its financial abuse investigations, develop internal control procedures for DDS, manage a “DDS Theft and Fraud Hotline,” and related matters.

In response to a Public Records Request that we filed specifically seeking data on financial abuse from Fiscal 2016 to the present, DDS informed us that the department does not keep records on the number of financial abuse allegations received by the Investigation Division. The reason given was that all of those allegations must be reported to the DPPC.

However, DDS does apparently keep those records regarding the BPI. DDS stated that the BPI, which is also required to report all allegations to DPPC, received 62 complaints of financial fraud either directly or via its Fraud Hotline since the BPI was established in Fiscal 2018.

DDS did not explain that apparent inconsistency in record-keeping between the Investigation Division and the BPI.

According to DPPC’s own records, from Fiscal 2016 through 2019, DPPC received 1,172 allegations of financial abuse involving DDS clients. It appears that many, if not most, of those allegations were referred to DPPC either by DDS, DDS-funded facilities, the DDS Investigation Division, or the BPI (after the start of Fiscal 2018).

Between Fiscal 2016 and 2019, DPPC, due to its lack of jurisdiction, reported that it referred 895, or 76%, of those 1,172 financial abuse allegations back to DDS to investigate. DPPC also referred an additional 261, or 22%, of the financial abuse allegations it received to EOEA.

EOEA then appears to have referred those 261 allegations back to DDS as well, although we were not able to verify that number through any of the three agencies’ records.

In any case, it would appear that in cases of financial abuse of elderly persons in DDS facilities, those cases are first routinely referred by DDS to DPPC, which then refers them to EOEA, which then refers them back to DDS.

Text for abuse referral blog post6

Low level of completed financial abuse investigations

Although DDS did not have records on the number of allegations referred to or received by the Investigation Division, DDS did state that the Division “completed” a total of 96 investigations of allegations of “financial misconduct” referred by DPPC to DDS from Fiscal Year 2016 to the date of COFAR’s Public Records Request in September 2019.

It was not clear why DDS would have records of the number of referred investigations that the Investigation Division completed, but would not have records of the number of cases referred by DPPC to the Investigation Division. Given the staffing of each of the two DDS investigative divisions, it would appear that the Investigation Division would or should have investigated most, if not all, of the 895 referrals.

If the DDS Investigation Division completed a total of only 96 out of 895 financial fraud investigations referred to it by DPPC in that 4-year period, that would amount to a completion rate of only about 11% of the cases. DDS substantiated a total of 12 of those 96 allegations.

EOEA and DPPC records may not line up 

Of the 1,172 financial abuse allegations it received from Fiscal 2016 through 2019, DPPC referred 261 of them, as noted, to EOEA, according to DPPC’s response to our Public Records Request. Given that those cases all involved DDS clients, it would appear that EOEA, according to its 25-year-old policy, would or should have referred all of those cases to DDS.

It was actually not possible for us to verify, based on DDS and EOEA records, that all of those 261 cases referred by DPPC to EOEA were, in fact, subsequently referred by EOEA to DDS.

As noted, DDS said it has no records of the number of abuse cases referred to it by EOEA. EOEA, as noted, only began tracking the number of cases referred to DDS in Fiscal 2018.

In fact, DPPC’s and EOEA’s records don’t appear to line up in that respect. EOEA responded to us that in Fiscal 2018, it referred zero abuse cases to DDS. However, according to DPPC’s records, DPPC referred 42 allegations of financial abuse involving DDS clients to EOEA in Fiscal 2018. According to EOEA’s policy, it should have referred those 42 cases to DDS that year.

The solution to the circular referral process lies with DPPC

Our recommended solution to the overall referral and investigation problem is to revive and enact the legislation that DPPC proposed 25 years ago.  DPPC should have the resources and authority needed to investigate all forms of abuse of the developmentally disabled, including persons over 60 years of age.

Right now, the investigative process involving abuse and neglect of persons with developmental disabilities is split among at least three agencies. It is a circuitous system rife with potential conflicts of interest and one in which record-keeping and apparently cooperation in undertaking investigations among the agencies is dispersed and spotty.

We plan to share these findings and our recommendation with the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee. The current abuse investigation and referral system appears to be set up for failure and needs to be reformed.

 

Committee airs testimony on sexual abuse of the disabled, but offers little indication of its next steps

November 1, 2018 3 comments

While members of a legislative committee heard testimony on Tuesday about sexual abuse of the developmentally disabled in Massachusetts, the state lawmakers on the committee gave little indication as to what they plan to do with the information.

COFAR was one of several organizations invited by the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee to testify. The committee members asked no questions of any of the three members of COFAR’s panel, who testified about serious and, in one case, fatal abuse of their family members in Department of Developmental Services-funded group homes.

Children and Families hearing 10.30.18

Tuesday’s hearing on sexual abuse in the DDS system. The committee members asked no questions of COFAR’s panel.

COFAR President Thomas Frain, Vice President Anna Eves, and COFAR member Richard Buckley also offered recommendations to the committee, including establishing a registry of caregivers found to have committed abuse of disabled persons, and potentially giving local police and district attorneys the sole authority to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and neglect.

The hearing drew some mainstream media coverage (here and here); but, while COFAR had alerted media outlets around the state to the hearing, most of the state’s media outlets, including The Boston Globe, did not cover it.

Committee asks no questions

Following the hearing, Frain said he was glad to get the opportunity to testify, but frustrated that the members of the committee seemed to lack interest in what he and COFAR’s other panel members had to say.

“It crossed my mind, were the committee members told not to ask any questions?” Frain said. “How divorced and disengaged is the Legislature that they can hear this testimony and not even have a follow-up question about an agency they’ve voted to fund?”

The hearing was the second since January involving testimony invited by the Children and Families Committee on the Department of Developmental Services system. The general public was allowed to attend, but not permitted to testify publicly before the committee in either hearing. The committee has given no information regarding the scope of its review of DDS.

COFAR has continued to ask for information from the committee as to the full scope of its review, and whether the committee intends to produce a report at the end of that review.

COFAR panel describes abuse and neglect

On Tuesday, Richard Buckley testified about his 17-year quest for answers to his and his family’s questions about his brother’s death in a group home in West Peabody in 2001. Buckley’s developmentally disabled brother, David, had previously been sexually abused in a group home in Hamilton, and was ultimately fatally injured in the group home in West Peabody.

David Buckley received second and third degree burns to his buttocks, legs, and genital area while being showered by staff in the West Peabody residence run by the Department of Developmental Services. The temperature of the water in the residence was later measured at over 160 degrees.

David died from complications from the burns some 12 days later, yet no one was ever charged criminally in the case, and the DDS (then Department of Mental Retardation) report on the incident did not substantiate any allegations of abuse or neglect.

Richard Buckley urged the committee to take action to reform the DDS system. “If nothing is done, the next rape, assault or death, will be on you,” he said. “And we will remember that.”

Buckley also read testimony from another COFAR member, Barbara Bradley, whose 53-year-old, intellectually disabled daughter is currently living in a residence with a man who has been paid by a DDS-funded agency to be her personal care attendant. In her testimony, Bradley said the man initiated a sexual relationship with her daughter, and later brought another woman, with whom he also became sexually involved, to live in the same residence.

Anna Eves discussed the near-death of her son, Yianni Baglaneas, in April 2017, after he had aspirated on a piece of cake in a provider-operated group home. The group home staff failed to obtain proper medical care for Yianni for nearly a week after he aspirated. He was finally admitted to a hospital in critical condition and placed on a ventilator for 11 days.

DDS later concluded that seven employees of Yianni’s residential provider were at fault in the matter. Nevertheless, at least two of those employees have continued to work for the provider, Eves said.

“The systems that are in place are not working and we are failing to protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Massachusetts,” Eves testified. “We have to do better.”

Eves urged the committee to support a minimum wage of $15 an hour for direct care workers, more funding for the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, and passage of “Nicky’s Law,” which would establish a registry of caregivers found to have committed abuse or neglect. Such persons would be banned from future employment in DDS-funded facilities.

Eves also noted that licensing reports on DDS residential and day program providers that she reviewed — including the provider operating her son’s group home — did not mention substantiated incidents of abuse or neglect. She said Massachusetts is falling behind a number of other states, which provide that information to families and guardians.

In his testimony, Frain also urged the committee to support more funding for the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, the state’s independent agency for investigating abuse and neglect of disabled adults. Because the agency is so grossly underfunded, he suggested that the committee consider either “fully funding” the agency or “partnering with the local police and district attorneys’ offices and let them investigate” the complaints.

Frain maintained that staffs of corporate providers, in particular, face pressure not to report complaints to the DPPC, and that the agency, in most cases, has to refer most of the complaints it receives to DDS. That is because the DPPC lacks the resources to investigate the complaints on its own.

Moreover, Frain maintained, the current investigative system is cumbersome. It can sometimes take weeks or months before either the DPPC or DDS begins investigating particular complaints, whereas police will show up in minutes and start such investigations immediately.

Frain also contended that “privatization of DDS services has been at the root of many of these problems.”

Other persons and organizations that testified Tuesday included DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder, the Arc of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Disability Law Center, and the Massachusetts Developmental Disability Council.

COFAR is continuing to urge the Children and Families Committee to hold at least one additional hearing at which all members of the public to testify publicly before the panel. COFAR has also been trying to obtain a clear statement from the committee as to the scope of its ongoing review of the Department of Developmental Services.

For a number of years, COFAR has sought a comprehensive legislative investigation of the DDS-funded group home system, which is subject to continuing reports of abuse, neglect and inadequate financial oversight.

Gov. Baker’s FY ’17 budget continues race to the bottom in care of the developmentally disabled

February 2, 2016 8 comments

In his proposed Fiscal 2017 budget, which he filed last week, Governor Baker is continuing to boost funding for privatized care for the developmentally disabled at the expense of state-run care.

This continues a pattern that has crossed party lines — the Patrick administration did the same thing — of reducing both the available choices and the quality of care for people with developmental disabilities.

Privatization of human services reduces the quality of care because it reduces money spent on direct-care staffing.  Direct care workers of corporate providers get lower pay and less benefits than their counterparts in state-run facilities.

Privatization reduces choice in care because it results in the closures of state-run facilities and consequently eliminates them as an option for people who might want that higher level of staffing and care.

Of course, as the linked New York Times article points out, privatizing services doesn’t necessarily result in long-term fiscal savings for state taxpayers.  The money saved in hiring lower-paid workers is usually offset by higher costs such as unemployment insurance and by Medicaid and other public assistance for workers earning low incomes.  We also believe any savings in privatization is also offset by the often inordinately high compensation provided to executives of the corporate providers.

Yet it appears the Baker administration still believes it will save money in using lower-paid direct-care workers.  That seems to be the case with the administration’s proposal to privatize mental health services in southeastern Massachusetts.  In that case, the administration appears to be implicitly backing a reduction in wages to direct-care workers after an initial contract period.

Governor’s FY ’17 DDS budget numbers

Here are some of the key numbers in Baker’s Fiscal 2017 budget proposal for the Department of Developmental Services.  Note: All numbers below are adjusted for inflation using the Mass. Budget and Policy Center’s CPI index numbers.  The CPI numbers show inflation running at about 1.8 percent for Fiscal 2016.

We believe that in order to gauge the level of the administration’s commitment to privatization of services for the developmentally disabled, it’s necessary to compare what has happened and is happening to the corporate provider line item with what happens to other DDS line items.

Here’s how it looks graphically, with more detailed explanation below.

DDS budget chart FY 17

Corporate provider residential line item (5920-2000): This is the main DDS line item supporting privatized services.  It has become by far the largest line item in the DDS budget — funding under this line item exceeded $1 billion for the first time in Fiscal 2015.

The governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget would increase the corporate provider line item by $5.9 million, or 0.5 percent, over current-year funding.  If the governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget is adopted, this line item will have been increased by $309 million, or 38.6 percent, since Fiscal 2012.

Chapter 257 Reserve 1599-6903: This is a reserve fund created to last year to provide even more funding for corporate providers.   The governor’s budget would increase this fund by $5.7 million or 18.6 percent, to $36.2 million.

The following three line items are key indicators of the administration’s commitment to state-run services.

State-run developmental centers budget line item (5930-1000):  The governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget would cut this line item by $3.18 million or 2.8 percent from the current-year appropriation.  If the governor’s proposal for Fiscal 2017 is adopted, this line item will have been cut by $41.6 million, or 27.5 percent, since Fiscal 2012.

That $41.6 million cut reflects the closures since 2008 of three of six remaining developmental centers.

State-operated Residential line item (5920-2010): The governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget would cut this line item by $212,800, or 0.1 percent, from current-year funding.  (In nominal dollars, the governor has proposed a $3.7 million increase in this line item, but it’s a cut when adjusted for inflation.)  If the governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget is adopted, this line item will have been increased by $42.8 million, or 24.4 percent, since Fiscal 2012.

That 24.4 percent increase since Fiscal 2012 for state-operated residential care can be compared to the 38.6 percent increase in the corporate provider residential line item. Moreover, that funding increase in the state-operated residential line item is actually a result of the underlying dynamic of privatization.

As we have noted before, there has been a net increase of 40 state-run group homes over the total number in 2008; but the state has closed state-run residences even as it has built new ones.  It appears the new state-run residences and the additional funding for those residences have been intended to accommodate the more than 250 people who have been transferred since 2008 from the closed developmental centers and the closed state-run homes.  Those are apparently the only people who have been admitted to the new state-operated homes.

As we’ve also pointed out, the administration does not even offer state-run residential facilities as options for developmentally disabled people waiting for residential care.  Privatized, corporate-run care has become the only “choice” available those people despite the fact that the federal Medicaid Law requires that developmentally disabled individuals and their guardians be informed of the available “feasible alternatives”  for care.

DDS administration (5911-1003): In addition to administrative functions, this line item funds DDS service coordinators, who are responsible for ensuring that clients throughout the system are receiving services to which they are entitled.  The service coordinators have seen their caseloads rise dramatically in recent years, but funding under this line item has never kept up with the caseload increases.

The governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget would cut the DDS administrative line item by $977,000, or 1.4 percent.  (In nominal dollars, the governor is proposing a slight increase in this line item, but it’s a cut when adjusted for inflation.)  Since Fiscal 2012, this line item will have been increased by 8.1 percent if the governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget is approved.

Other line items that demonstrate the administration’s commitment to increased DDS privatization include the following:

Community day and work 5920-2025: The governor’s budget would increase this line item by $5.6 million or 3 percent.  Since Fiscal 2012, this line item will have been increased by 45 percent if the governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget is approved. It appears that some of the increase proposed for this line item reflects the transfers of people from sheltered workshops to day programs.

Employment pilot program 5920-2026: The governor’s Fiscal 2017 budget would increase this line item by $4.6 million, which is a major increase, given that the current year appropriation is just over $3 million. That proposed 150 percent increase reflects the transition from sheltered workshops to supposed integrated employment.

The pattern of privatization in Massachusetts state government has become almost permanently established even though the benefits of privatization are highly debatable.  Many questions have been raised about the privatization of prisons  and the privatization of education in Massachusetts and elsewhere around the country.  The privatization of human services may be the biggest prize of all for government-funded contractors.  We need to preserve what’s left of state-run services.

Most of the mainstream media skipped class last week on privatization and the Pacheco Law

January 11, 2016 1 comment

It’s amazing how little real understanding the mainstream media has of the issue of privatization and of legislative responses to it such as the Pacheco Law.

You only have to read this Boston Globe editorial from 2011 to begin to realize how many misconceptions supposedly savvy journalists have about these issues.  (More about that below.)

Privatization is one of the most important and controversial aspects of state and federal policy. When I googled the phrase “privatization and public policy,” I got 2.7 million results.  The state auditor’s administration of the Pacheco Law has become a key item of controversy in Massachusetts politics as well.

In that light, the State Auditor’s Office and the Boston Bar Association organized a forum directly across the street from the State House this past Thursday afternoon to discuss and debate the Pacheco Law and its impact on privatization, and invited the media to attend.

I was invited to present the pro-Pacheco Law side in the discussion, and Charlie Chieppo, a senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute, presented the anti-Pacheco Law side.  A number of top people from the Auditor’s Office presented information on how the law works, highlights of its 23-year history, and key areas of litigation involving the law. Michael LaGrassa of UMass Dartmouth discussed the university’s experience with the Pacheco Law in privatizing the campus bookstore operations in 2014.

In addition to the lineup of speakers, the State Auditor’s Office had put together three-ring binder notebooks filled with helpful information on the Pacheco Law and what it actually does and requires, in addition to materials we had submitted stating our positions on the law. (Included in the binder was our report, “Setting the record straight about the Pacheco Law.”  I’ll post that report here this week.)

As I understand it, two members of the media showed up at the Thursday forum — a reporter from Massachusetts Lawyer’s Weekly and a reporter from The Boston Business Journal.  I haven’t yet seen anything published from them, but at least they were there.

Neither the Globe nor Herald sent anyone to the event.  Notably absent was Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, who has been described as someone who “has been the most consistent and vociferous critic of the (Pacheco) law…”

From my vantage point, there appeared to be some 50 to 60 people in attendance at the forum.

Among the little-known and discussed facts about the Pacheco Law that I tried to point out during the forum were that:

    1. The Pacheco Law was based on federal policy (OMB Circular A-76)
    2. The law never barred or banned the award of bus contracts by the MBTA, and the law has not stopped privatization of most human services in Massachusetts

Chieppo of the Pioneer Institute argued that the Pacheco Law is different than A-76 because A-76 requires a binding letter of obligation if the public employees win the bid competition with the private sector.  (I disagreed with his assertion that no such obligation binds state employees under the Pacheco Law.)

LaGrassa of UMass said the Pacheco Law review that the university did to privatize their bookstore helped them to better understand the costs involved in running it.  He said that the process involved a lot of work and back-and-forth with the auditor’s office; but in his words, “you should do a lot of work” if you are going to privatize a public service.

Regarding the 2011 Globe editorial referred to above:

Memo to Globe editorial writer: Contractors bidding to privatize services don’t have to pay public sector wages under a Pacheco Law review.  They can pay the lesser of the lowest public sector wage or the average private sector wage for the equivalent position.

And no, a privatization initiative doesn’t have to “produce savings” over what the state employees could achieve under ideal conditions.  The privatization initiative must project such savings, but no one has to — or is expected to — actually produce them.   The Pacheco Law requires a competition between private and public sector bids, both types of which are based on projected results that might be achieved under ideal conditions.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that people in the mainstream media still occupy influential positions as opinion makers regarding politics and government, in particular.  As such, they have an obligation to get their facts straight on these matters.  The state auditor’s “Primer” on privatization last week presented a convenient opportunity to do that.

But with two exceptions, the mainstream media blew their opportunity by missing the class.

New DDS background check law has delayed requirements

August 14, 2014 Leave a comment

A new national criminal background check law in Massachusetts  may well have a major, positive impact on services and care for people with developmental disabilities in the state.

But under the law, the background check requirement is delayed for many, if not most, current employees in the Department of Developmental Services system for more than four years, until January 2019.  The requirement is delayed for a year and a half for prospective employees in the system.

The long-awaited law, which was signed by Governor Patrick last week, authorizes national criminal background checks for persons hired to work in an unsupervised capacity with persons with developmental disabilities.  The law will ultimately require that both current and prospective caregivers in the system submit their fingerprints to a federal database maintained by the FBI.  The law applies to DDS employees, employees of corporate service providers to the department, and caregivers over the age of 15 of persons living at home.

Up to now, persons hired to care for clients in the DDS system have had to submit only to an in-state criminal background check, which identifies only criminal arrests and convictions in Massachusetts, and does not identify any convictions a job applicant might have from another state.  A national background check system will fill in that potential gap in the applicant’s history.

The new law’s fingerprint requirements, however, will be phased in through January 2019 for current employees, and will not take effect for new employees until January 2016.  Another provision in the new law that raises questions appears to allow employees to be hired before the results of their background checks are obtained.  That provision states the following:

Department-licensed, funded or approved programs and providers of transportation services on behalf of any department-licensed, funded or approved program may hire individuals without first obtaining the results of a state and national fingerprint-based criminal history check (my emphasis).

It’s not entirely clear to us what the intent of this provision is or what its impact might be.  It appears to allow people to be hired before they are cleared through the FBI database. The provision does not specify a time frame for obtaining the background check results after an individual is hired.

Does this provision mean that even after January 2019, someone could be hired by DDS or a provider and could work for weeks or possibly months with developmentally disabled people before their background results are obtained or before their backgrounds are even checked? Furthermore, does the provision allow for that leeway even for in-state background checks?

I contacted the staff of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee earlier this week to ask about that provision and the provisions phasing in the background check requirements until 2016 and 2019.  It was apparently in the Judiciary Committee that these provisions were inserted. Interestingly, the Judiciary Committee staff person I talked to referred me to Philip Johnston Associates, a Beacon Hill lobbying firm, which was apparently involved in the final negotiations over the bill, apparently on behalf of DDS corporate providers.

On Tuesday, I spoke to a member of the Johnston Associates firm, who said she was unsure as well about the intent of the provision that appears to allow the hiring of individuals prior to checking their backgrounds, and that she would get back to me.  I have not yet heard back from her.  I also placed two calls on Monday and Tuesday to the state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, which is in charge of administering the law.  I have yet to get a return call from that department.

The Johnston Associates staff member said the providers and other advocates involved in negotiations over the background check legislation pushed for phasing in the fingerprint requirements due to concerns over the time needed to implement them.  A member of the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers expressed a concern in a news article last week that the new fingerprint requirements could prove burdensome to smaller provider agencies.

It is not clear to us though that more than four years is really needed to phase in the national background check program for current employees in the DDS system, or that a year-and-a-half delay is needed before requiring new employees to be fingerprinted.  We’re skeptical that that much time is needed, partly because we’ve witnessed a lack of urgency on the part of both the Legislature and the administration for the past several years in just getting this law passed.  It seems possible that that lack of urgency is being carried over into implementing the law’s requirements.

National background check legislation had been proposed each year for up to a decade by then Representative Martin Walsh, now mayor of Boston, before it was finally enacted this year.  Each year, the legislation would get stuck in either the Judiciary or House Ways and Means Committees, or both, and then would die at the end of the session.  The administration did little during that time to lobby for passage of the measure.  As a result, Massachusetts has been only one of a handful of states without a national background check program for people with developmental disabilities.

Meanwhile, the federal government has stood ready to assist the state with grant money under the Affordable Care Act to help implement the new background check law; but Massachusetts has declined to apply for that federal money, which has available since 2010. The state has even been slow to implement national background checks for school teachers and children’s day care providers.

While we’re glad to see that the DDS national background check bill is finally law, we hope the administration now shows a true commitment and sense of urgency in getting it to work.

The Sherlock Holmes-style mystery of the secret switch of the ‘Real Lives’ bill versions

How exactly does it happen in the state Legislature that a good piece of legislation gets “lost” just as a bad piece of legislation has been substituted for it?

That seems to be exactly what happened with the ‘Real Lives’ bill this spring in the state Legislature.  There has long been a heavy dose of game-playing by corporate providers to the Department of Developmental Services in their years-long quest to gain passage of this bill; but the secret substitution of their preferred version for another, much better, version of the bill this spring may take the proverbial cake.

In this case, the sleight-of-hand move may bring the DDS providers as close to winning passage of their version of the bill (H. 4237) as they have ever been.  We understand H. 4237 is going to be sent to the Senate very soon from the House for final passage.

This is a badly flawed piece of legislation. The much better redraft of this bill was approved in early May by the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee (H. 4063).  But somehow, as noted, that redraft, which was done by Senator Michael Barrett’s office, got lost one month later in the legislative process.  Somehow, H. 4237 was substituted for H. 4063 in the Health Care Financing Committee.

When I talked a few weeks ago with a staff member of the Health Care Financing Committee, I was told the substitution was a mistake.  But if it was a mistake, it’s one that has yet to be corrected; and it may soon be too late to correct it.  (Maybe we can engage a modern-day Sherlock Holmes to find out what really happened to Senator Barrett’s version of the bill.  Maybe it has been hidden away in a State House attic, a la Holmes’s Adventure of the Norwood Builder.)

The Real Lives concept is intended to serve the laudable goal of providing intellectually disabled persons and their guardians with greater choice and “self-determination” in obtaining services from the Department of Developmental Services. But as currently drafted, H. 4237 is little more than a vehicle for the financial benefit of DDS corporate providers.

As we have pointed out in numerous blog posts and in our July newsletter, the current text of H. 4237 would inappropriately place DDS provider-based organizations on an advisory board that would help design the self-determination program. These same providers were involved in drafting this legislation, and stand to benefit financially from any program they help create.

In addition, the current draft of the bill would establish a “contingency fund,” which would further compensate DDS providers financially if and when residential clients leave them for other providers. These and other provisions in the current draft of the legislation create unacceptable conflicts of interest.

In contrast, Barrett’s redraft of the legislation, which was approved in May by the Children and Families Committee, would have removed the contingency fund and all references to provider-based organizations on the advisory board. That redraft (H. 4063) would, moreover, have required that more than 50 percent of this board be made up of individuals who are financially independent of any provider.

But as noted, when H. 4063 was sent by the Children and Families Committee to the Health Care Financing Committee in early June, the redraft was removed, and the provider-friendly version of the legislation was re-inserted as H. 4237. As unacceptable as this bill has become, the process under which the redraft was removed from it is equally unacceptable.

Please ask your senator to vote against H. 4237 in its current form, and to send it back to the committees it came from so that Senator Barrett’s redraft can be found and restored to it.

Sheltered workshops for the disabled win big reprieve in Massachusetts

July 14, 2014 5 comments

A major effort by advocates of sheltered workshops in Massachusetts to persuade state legislators and the Patrick administration that the workshops provide invaluable skills and activities for their loved ones with intellectual disabilities has paid off.

Last week, Governor Patrick signed the Fiscal Year 2015 state budget, which contains language protecting the workshops from closure.  The language states that the state must not “reduce the availability or decrease funding for sheltered workshops serving persons with disabilities who voluntarily seek or wish to retain such employment services.”

The passage of this language appears likely to cause at least a slowdown in the administration’s plans to close all remaining sheltered workshops in the state as early as next June.   The administration has contended that sheltered workshops “segregate” people with developmental disabilities from their non-disabled peers in the mainstream workforce. Supporters of the workshops, and we are among them, argue that the workshops provide needed skills and fulfilling work for people with intellectual disabilities, and do not prevent them from contact with peers in the community.

The protective workshop language survived a House-Senate conference committee late last month, and Gov. Patrick had until last Friday to line-item veto it, and chose not to do so.  So, it’s now the law.

The legislative victory is largely due to an intensive effort by workshop supporters to get the word out to key legislators — particularly to Rep. Brian Dempsey, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee — of the value of the workshops, and of the contention that the administration and corporate provider-based organizations such as the Arc of Massachusetts were spreading misinformation about them. Dempsey, in particular, has turned out to be a strong supporter of the workshops, particularly in the budget conference committee.

It remains to be seen whether the protective language will help people like Tom Urban, a 55-year-old man with Down Syndrome, who had been employed in a sheltered workshop for the bulk of his adult life, according to his brother and guardian, Richard.   Richard said that last December, he was informed that all sheltered workshops were being closed and that Tom would no longer be employed, as of the very next day, in his workshop, operated by Work, Inc., a Department of Developmental Services provider.

“To put it mildly, this was a rather disruptive change in Tom’s life with no opportunity to prepare him for this shocking development,” Richard Urban wrote in an email to Rep. Dempsey in late May.  “Moreover,” he said, “no chance was provided for me, as his brother, guardian and caretaker, to voice any opposition, or input, to this policy change imposed by (DDS).”

Richard said that although Tom “has limitations in a variety of areas, his work ethic and paycheck (from his sheltered workshop program) were two constants that allowed him a place on a playing field of equality with his peers, family and friends.”   Since his “forced exit from his workshop,” Richard added, Tom “has grown distant, is very confused, and expresses continued sadness over his job loss.  His identity, and work community, have been lost, through no fault of his own but by virtue of a policy shift for which I am at a complete loss to understand.”

The effort to close the workshops has been driven by an extreme anti-congregate care ideology that the Patrick administration subscribes to.  Simply because a group of disabled people work together in sheltered workshops, the administration considers it to be a “segregated setting.”  As a result, we are concerned that despite the budget language allowing those who are currently  in workshop programs to remain in them, people like Tom Urban, who have lost their workshop programs or are seeking for the first time to get into one will find not be able to do so.  Last year, the administration announced it would no longer allow new referrals to sheltered workshops in the state as of this past January.

In addition, the FY 2015 budget contains at least two reserve funds totaling $3 million to support the transfers of persons from sheltered workshops to provider-run day programs and unspecified job training programs.  While the administration contends that intellectually disabled people will all be able to reach their potential in mainstream or “integrated” work environments, there is  uncertainty over how many mainstream jobs really exist for most people with developmental disabilities, and many questions about what integrated employment really means.

Sheltered workshops have won a welcome reprieve in Massachusetts, but their future still remains uncertain; and also uncertain are the long-term prospects of fulfilling work activities for thousands of people with developmental disabilities in the state.