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Should we require video cameras in DDS group homes?

October 23, 2019 6 comments

A bill filed in the state Legislature would require residential programs across the state for persons with developmental disabilities or mental illness to install video surveillance cameras in common areas in their facilities in order to deter and potentially prosecute abuse.

We support the bill (H.158) in concept although we’re not sure how effective the measure, as currently drafted, would be because it would not require security cameras in bedrooms. The bill is in the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee. We’ve posed a number of questions to the committee about it.

H.158 states that video cameras must be installed at all entrances, exits, and common areas of facilities licensed by the Departments of Developmental Services and Mental Health, including community-based group homes and inpatient facilities. The bill, however, would not require the installation of cameras in bedrooms, where it could be argued that most abuse occurs.

If properly drafted, this bill could serve as an additional safeguard to abuse and neglect, and supplement a separate bill (S. 2367), which would establish a registry in the state of caregivers found to have abused persons in DDS-funded facilities. S.2367, known as Nicky’s Law, was approved unanimously by the Massachusetts Senate last week.

Massachusetts currently appears to have no laws that specifically restrict videotaping in group homes, but there are statutes and regulations that restrict audio-taping without consent. A guardian can apparently install a video and audio camera in the bedroom of a developmentally disabled individual with the permission of the facility provider.

On October 15, I emailed a number of questions relating to H.158 to the Legislature’s Children and Families Committee. Among my questions were:

1. Do you know whether similar legislation has been enacted elsewhere or what its effectiveness has been?

3. Do you have any information or estimates on the cost of installing and maintaining cameras and monitoring units in all DDS and DMH residential facilities?

4. Do you have any information on the number of abuse incidents that occur in common areas or in entrances or exits of group homes?

To date, I have not yet heard back from the Committee.

Literature on video surveillance in group homes and other long-term care settings

There is some academic literature that is critical of the idea of video surveillance in long-term care facilities. But there are experts who vouch for the effectiveness of video surveillance, at least in helping prosecute caregivers for abuse. There seems to be some agreement that the cameras are not necessarily as effective in deterring abuse as in helping prosecutions after abuse has occurred.

Judge Rotenberg Center case

An article by The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) implied that cameras were effective in bringing criminal charges in at least one case at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, MA. The October 29, 2018, article stated that a 22-year-old man was repeatedly whipped by a belt-wielding caretaker in a Rotenberg Center group home. The caretaker was criminally charged after his actions were caught on video.

Apparently, the Rotenberg Center and its 45 group homes are equipped with surveillance cameras. At the same time, however, it appears the cameras have apparently not stopped the relatively high number of abuse cases that the Rotenberg Center is cited for each year.

The Rotenberg Center has long been a focus of controversy because of its practice of administering electric skin shocks to program clients as a behavior modification technique.

The NECIR found that the Rotenberg Center was cited for abuse of adult residents more than any other special needs school by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission between 2011 and 2016. Our own analysis of DPPC data showed that the Rotenberg Center led other providers in two separate regions in the state in total complaints or highest percentage of abuse complaints referred for criminal investigation between Fiscal 2010 and 2019.

Rape case spurs camera legislation in Arizona

Palm Beach Post article in February discussed the debate over surveillance cameras in noting that a rape in an an Arizona Intermediate Care Facility was spurring legislation in that state to allow cameras in long-term care facilities.

The article stated that Arizona was considering whether to join 10 other states — Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington — with laws or regulations allowing surveillance equipment inside nursing homes, assisted living centers and other group residential settings.

The Palm Beach Post article noted that most of those laws place the option and cost of electronic monitoring on residents and their guardians. According to the article, a majority of the laws allow residents or their surrogates to put cameras or monitoring devices in their rooms but require them to notify the facility, among other conditions.

Carole Herman, founder of the advocacy group Foundation Aiding the Elderly, was quoted in the article as saying, “The (healthcare) industry doesn’t want it obviously. But if they care about these people, what’s the resistance to these cameras?”

The article also quoted one expert who said a properly designed closed-circuit TV system with “multiple monitoring points” could be a good deterrent.  However, in many cases, nobody is watching the video monitors, the expert said.

We think it might make sense to add a requirement to H.158 that DDS-funded facilities install surveillance cameras in bedrooms or other areas where abuse is known to take place, provided that the DDS clients involved or their guardians or family members agree to those placements. As noted, it does not appear to us that current law would prevent those installations.

Ultimately, we think the solution to the abuse problem lies in changing the culture in provider organizations, which is currently lax regarding training and supervision of group home staff. Without first taking that step, relying on surveillance technology and the registry may lead to a false sense of security.