By Caroline Chen, Center for Investigative Reporting
Advocates for the developmentally disabled gathered today at the state Capitol to demand that Gov. Jerry Brown focus his attention on the 1,500 men and women living in California’s troubled board-and-care facilities, described by one resident as “hellholes.”
Waving a thick stack of reports in the air, Jacquie Dillard-Foss, CEO of Strategies to Empower People, which provides services for the disabled to live independently, said cases of patient abuse and neglect at the state’s five institutions had been recorded since the early 1990s, but with little response from the government.
“We know the problem has existed for decades,” Dillard-Foss said. “We are in the midst of a human crisis.”
The event in Sacramento comes a week after the California State Auditor released a scathing report detailing the failures of the Department of Developmental Services to protect the people who reside in its institutions in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sonoma and Tulare counties.
A letter from the advocates in today’s event calls on Brown to appoint an administration official to respond to the audit’s findings.
“We can’t wait for more bills to pass, we can’t wait for more studies, we can’t wait for the Department of Developmental Services to try to reform itself – they’re incapable of doing that,” said Greg deGiere, public policy director of The Arc and United Cerebral Palsy California Collaboration.
The Department of Developmental Services declined to comment in detail about today’s event but pointed to its formal response included in the recent audit and noted that it already has formed a task force to fix problems at the centers.
“Many actions have already taken place to improve safety of the residents and overall operation of the developmental centers,” Nancy Lungren, a spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an email. “DDS acknowledges that while significant progress has been made, more can be done to improve the lives of the residents.”
The state’s audit confirmed the findings of an 18-month investigation by California Watch, a project of The Center for the Investigative Reporting, that revealed that the centers’ in-house officers and detectives often failed to secure crime scenes and routinely delayed interviews with key witnesses and suspects – leading to an alarming inability to solve crimes.
Dozens of women were sexually assaulted inside state centers, but investigators didn’t order “rape kits” to collect evidence, a standard law enforcement tool. The internal police force, called the Office of Protective Services, waited so long to investigate one sexual assault that the janitor accused of rape fled the country. The police force’s inaction also allowed abusive caregivers to continue molesting patients – even after the department had evidence that could have stopped future assaults.
In one egregious physical abuse case, a caregiver was suspected of using a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients. Yet the police force waited at least nine days to interview the caregiver, who never was arrested or charged with abuse. The vast majority of the Taser victims are so disabled that they cannot utter a word.
Among the signatories of the letter is Larry Ingraham, brother of Van Ingraham, a severely autistic resident at the Fairview Developmental Center who was found in his room with a broken neck and crushed spinal cord in 2007. He died six days later.
Although medial experts said Van Ingraham’s death was likely a homicide, Fairview’s police force did not collect any physical evidence and waited five days to begin interviewing potential suspects.
“Even after my brother, there have been more (homicide) cases,” Larry Ingraham said. “They shake their head a lot every time an audit comes out, but nothing ever happens. I’m sick of it.”
Ultimately, the coalition hopes the state will shut down the centers, a view that highlights a constinuing philosophical split between advocates who work with the disabled.
Supporters of today’s event believe the developmentally disabled are better suited to live outside of institutions. But advocates for the centers say the intense work needed to care for this vulnerable population – and, often, the lack of family members to care for them – means institutional settings are the only option.
In Sacramento, former residents gave testimony about their experiences in the institutions and said they were happier living independently.
“They would stick me in the corner, and they would hit me. They also put me in restraints. … It would just make me angry,” recalled Jerome Nash, a former resident at the Porterville Developmental Center, speaking through a sign language interpreter.
Nash now has lived independently for 10 years. “I like my house. I’m very happy,” he said. “I go out. I barbecue. I’m finished with Porterville.”
Kimberly Williams, who once lived at the Sonoma Developmental Center, did not mince her words.
“It was the worst time of my life,” she said. Her message to the governor: “Shut these hellholes down now.”
The independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting is the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.