May 11, 2012

Gov. Cuomo Proposes New Agency to Protect New Yorkers with Special Needs

On Monday, May 7, Governor Cuomo proposed legislation for a new agency to protect New Yorkers with special needs.  If the legislature approves of the bill, called the “Protection of People with Special Needs Act,” the proposed Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs would be up and running by April 1, 2013.  Although the Justice Center replaces the Commission on the Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities (CQC), the new agency has broader investigation and enforcement powers than the CQC.

The bill would give state authorities new powers to investigate and punish the abuse and neglect of New Yorkers with special needs. Mandated reporters of abuse and neglect could call a new 24-hour hotline to make their reports, and an Inspector General would investigate the suspected abuse and neglect of individuals in residential facilities and day programs across New York.  Both district attorneys and the Justice Center’s Special Prosecutor would be able to prosecute any abuse and neglect that the Inspector General discovers.  Penalties for abusing or neglecting people with special needs would grow harsher as well.  The bill attempts to unify the definitions of abuse and neglect that various state agencies use, and would increase the penalties for offenses against certain individuals with special needs.  Additionally, the bill creates a new misdemeanor offense: “endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person in the second degree.”

The bill would also impose new responsibilities upon governed facilities and their employees.  Facilities in New York that are operated, licensed, or certified by the State Office of Mental Health, Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, or Office of Children and Family Services would find that they are subject to new requirements, especially in employee hiring.  These facilities would have to run criminal background checks on prospective employees, volunteers, or consultants.  Moreover, because the bill creates a state-wide register with the names of individuals responsible for abuse and neglect, facilities would likely have to cross-reference the names of applicants with this database.  However, subject to union collective bargaining agreements, facilities would have a new power to fire employees on the spot if those employees commit “serious acts of abuse or neglect.”

While some of these proposals could certainly be changed or even eliminated as the State Legislature addresses the bill, the Governor’s proposal could bring clarity and consistency to the way that the State handles abuse and neglect among our most vulnerable citizens.  As this bill makes its way through the legislature, facilities that care for New Yorkers with special needs should pay special attention to new responsibilities and powers they might have concerning employee hiring and retention.

This post was contributed by Caitlin Monjeau.