Archive

Posts Tagged ‘neglect’

Trial in alleged assault of intellectually disabled man is put off again

March 27, 2012 4 comments

Today (Tuesday) marked the fifth time Sheila Paquette has traveled from her home in western Massachusetts to Cape Cod to seek justice in the alleged assault of her brother, John Burns, an intellectually disabled resident of a group home in West Springfield.

But Paquette learned today she will have to make yet another trip to the Cape, along with David V., another resident of Burns’ group home, and Dan Aguda, a Department of Developmental Services instructor.  The three were scheduled to testify today in Falmouth District Court in the trial of John Saunders, a former resident of Burns’ group home, who is charged with assaulting Burns during an outing on the Cape in June 2010.

As Paquette and the others sat in the courtroom all morning on Tuesday waiting for the proceedings to finally begin, the judge at the last moment postponed the trial until June 4 because a defense witness had failed to appear.  Paquette, who is president of the Advocacy Network, a COFAR member organization, was visibly shaken by the sudden decision.

Sheila Paquette (left) in front of Falmouth District Court Tuesday after the trial of the man accused of assaulting her brother, John Burns, was postponed yet again. To Paquette's right are Dan Aguda, a DDS instructor in John Burns' day program; Deborah Reid, the house manager in Burns' group home; David V., a resident of the group home; and Ed Strout, a Board member of the Advocacy Network, a COFAR member organization.

“I can’t believe this is happening again,” Paquette said to Assistant District Attorney Kerry Whalen.  “I’ve come down here five times, and every time there’s another delay.”

“It’s been almost two years (since the alleged assault),” Aguda added. “Memories will start to fade in terms of testifying.”

Whalen tried to reassure them and said she believes the trial will go forward on June 4.  The judge, she said, will not grant another continuance to the defense witness.

Paquette isn’t convinced of that, but she and the other prosecution witnesses are prepared to travel to Falmouth again in June.  “Anyone who assaults the intellectually disabled should know that these cases will be pursued,” she said.

The last time Paquette and the group from western Massachusetts were in court on the Cape was January 9, when Saunders’ trial was first scheduled.  But Saunders himself was a no-show that day.  

Saunders was reportedly arrested by police a couple of days after the January trial date and was released after posting bond that had been set by the judge at $1,000.  The Falmouth District Attorney’s Office stated that it had requested a $5,000 bond for Saunders.  He was present in the courtroom on Tuesday.

Paquette personally filed assault charges against Saunders in July 2010 after she became frustrated with the slow pace of state and law enforcement authorities in investigating the case.   The Center for Human Development, a nonprofit firm that contracts with the state Department of Developmental Services to operate the group home in which Saunders worked, subsequently fired Saunders.

Saunders allegedly hit Burns in the face while toileting him during a vacation outing on the Cape for residents of the group home.  Burns suffered two black eyes and other injuries.  In recent months, Burns has been confined to a wheelchair.  Paquette says she was told by her brother’s neurologist he has a neck injury typical of serious whiplash.

Saunders has denied assaulting Burns.  The Disabled Persons Protection Commission concluded there was reasonable cause to believe Saunders had used excessive force and had physically assaulted Burns. 

The DPPC also recommended that Saunders no longer be permitted to work with DDS clients and cited the CHD group home for failing to identify Burns’ injuries before sending him to his day program the morning after the alleged assault.

Advertisements

Update: some progress to report in abuse case

March 25, 2011 4 comments

There have been some new developments in a case we reported on here, involving the alleged assault of an intellectually disabled man by a group home staff worker.

A state investigator has recommended that John Saunders, who has been charged with assaulting John Burns during an outing from his West Springfield-based group home last June, no longer be allowed to work with Department of Developmental Services clients.  Saunders was fired after the alleged assault from the group home, which is run by the Center for Human Development.

Saunders allegedly hit Burns in the face while toileting him, causing Burns to suffer two black eyes.   Saunders is scheduled to appear in Falmouth District Court on Monday, March 28, at 9 a.m. for a pre-trial hearing that has already been continued several times.

Charges against Saunders were personally brought by Sheila Paquette, Burns’ sister and co-guardian, after Paquette became frustrated with the slow pace of the state’s investigation into the case.  Paquette has also been frustrated that she has gotten little information about the case so far from state and law enforcement authorities, which have not released an investigative report done by DDS on the matter.

However, in an email late last week to Paquette, Gail Quinn, the deputy general counsel of the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, did provide Paquette with the investigator’s recommendations.  In addition to the recommendation against allowing Saunders to work with DDS clients, the investigator’s report cites the group home for failing to “identify” Burns’ injuries before sending him to his day program the morning after the alleged assault, and recommends retraining of staff in that regard.

Quinn also said the DPPC is changing its policy as a result of this case of  withholding investigative reports from guardians of victims of alleged abuse pending the outcome of criminal investigations.  She stated that the agency will notify district attorneys’ offices of its intention to send out investigative reports to guardians within a specified time frame unless the district attorney objects.  Quinn wrote that the DPPC has issued such a notification to the district attorney in Burns’ case.

Quinn added in her email that, “The delay in getting (investigative) Reports out has been very concerning to us.  Your case has brought the issue to the fore, and we have been able to deal with it in a manner that we think represents everyone’s interests in the content of the Report.”

Paquette, who is president of the Advocacy Network and a COFAR member, termed the DPPC’s new policy “encouraging,” but said she still isn’t convinced the system is fully on the victim’s side in these types of cases.  Nevertheless, she said she is appreciative of Quinn’s comments.

Instances of assault and abuse of persons with intellectual disabilities often don’t get prosecuted by law enforcement authorities, and other state agencies tend to function slowly and inefficiently in these cases.  Paquette said she was told by an investigator that had she not personally pressed charges in this case, it could have taken as long as two years for the matter to reach criminal court.

I talked about that today with Emil DeRiggi, deputy executive director of the DPPC, who said the agency supports decisions of individual family members or guardians to personally press charges in abuse cases.  “We generally support anyone who learns something happened and believes filing charges is the right thing to do,” DeRiggi said.  “I would encourage people to do whatever they think is best in these instances.”

DeRiggi said that in the case of Paquette’s brother, the State Police Unit assigned to the DPPC referred the matter to the district attorney’s office on Cape Cod, where the alleged assault took place.  While that implies the case would have gone to criminal court without Paquette’s intervention, it does appear that her decision to press charges on her own may have, at the very least, speeded up the wheels of justice in this instance.

One other note:  We have recieved the police report in the case from the Falmouth Police Department, where Paquette initally filed the assault charges.  The report states that the alleged assault was witnessed by Burns’ roommate, who “reported seeing Mr. Saunders hand covering the mouth of Mr. Burns…and then witnessed Mr. Saunders strike Mr. Burns in the face with an open hand.”   Saunders has denied the charge, according to the police report.

Justice elusive in assaults of the intellectually disabled

March 14, 2011 14 comments

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.”