ALBANY, N.Y. — The state agency responsible for protecting disabled New Yorkers told county prosecutors last fall that it would begin sending them referrals of abuse cases, more than two years after the agency was created to fill a chronic gap in enforcement.
The Justice Center, whose suburban Albany office receives thousands of reports of alleged abuse and neglect by caregivers, has its own prosecutors who have jurisdiction along with the counties’ 62 district attorneys. It also conducts administrative and disciplinary proceedings and refers many reports back to the facilities for handling internally.
An Associated Press examination last year of misconduct complaints against caregivers found that only a small percentage — a disturbingly small one, according to some activists — was being prosecuted.
Patricia Gunning, the Justice Center’s special prosecutor, wrote Oct. 14 to the district attorneys: “In response to numerous requests at (your association’s) summer conference with regard to notifications of potential cases in your respective jurisdictions, the office … will begin sending case referrals for matters that have been called in … so that your offices may investigate and prosecute as you deem appropriate.”
Calls to Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe, president of the association, were not returned.
Justice Center spokeswoman Diane Ward said that district attorneys were already being notified by phone or email of allegations that may involve crimes, and that the memo merely advised they would now all be notified electronically to ensure they’re aware of the reports. The district attorneys were asked to designate someone on their staff to get the emails or they’d go to them personally.
“The special prosecutor is in regular contact with the county DAs about potentially criminal cases in their jurisdiction,” Ward said. She said the agency would provide the number of referrals since the October memo.
Michael Carey, an advocate for the disabled, said his foundation filed open-records requests last year with all 62 county prosecutors asking how many referrals they’ve received. A dozen responded, some saying they had a few referrals, while nearly 50 district attorneys’ offices didn’t bother to reply, he said.
“I’ve got documents showing they’re still not reporting cases to the DAs,” Carey said. Federal law requires New York’s state agencies and nonprofits that receive billions of dollars in federal Medicaid annually provide environments free of abuse and neglect, an enormous incentive to downplay and cover up incidents, he said.
Carey, whose autistic son was smothered by a state caregiver in 2007, said that the Justice Department and U.S. attorney in Manhattan should investigate, and that New York’s attorney general, inspector general and state police have declined his requests to do so.
An AP analysis last fall showed that since the start of 2014, the Justice Center — established to protect the 1 million disabled, addicted, mentally ill and young people getting state care — had received more than 25,000 allegations of abuse and neglect by caretakers and substantiated about 7,000 of them. But just 169 cases, or less than 2.5 percent, had resulted in criminal charges.
In May, the AP reported that no criminal charges resulted from nine death cases, all in Long Island’s Suffolk County between 2013 and 2016, where the Justice Center received reports of abuse or neglect involved. The center acknowledged having sent them to an assistant prosecutor’s personal email, an account the district attorney’s office said was dormant.