New York should be reforming the way it provides services to disabled people, especially in state-run group homes and institutions, but what the state should not be doing is stacking more bureaucracy on top of the six state agencies that already devote resources to this task.
If New York had $50 million a year burning a hole in its pocket, then the proposal Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday — to create a new agency with more than 400 employees, charged with policing neglect and abuse of disabled people in the state system — would still be a bad idea.
Cost is not the issue. Abuses do occur and stopping them is imperative, even if it ends up costing the state millions of dollars. But forming a massive new bureaucracy will not address the systemic problems with the quality of care disabled people receive.
Gov. Cuomo would do much better to take the $50 million a year the new agency will cost (and that estimate strikes us as low) and put it into lowering the staff-to-patient ratios at state homes and institutions and improving the quality of workers by raising their pay and giving them better training.
At group homes now, staffers with minimal training are paid low wages to do jobs that are physically and emotionally difficult and require diligence and care.
Group home staffers care for disabled adults, who in some cases, function at the level of toddlers. Some wear diapers. Some are physically unpredictable. The staffers must care for them in every way, as a mother cares for a child, and also give them medications.
It is demanding and exhausting and important work and the state should require everyone who does it holds at least a community residence aid certificate. Regional colleges, like North Country Community College, offer the one-year certification programs.
Home health aides who work for agencies funded by Medicare or Medicaid must meet minimum standards of preparation, which include 75 hours of training plus 16 hours of supervised work, and group home workers should have at least as much training.
Courtney Burke, the state’s commissioner of the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, announced this week the state agency is seeking to fire nearly 200 employees with “substantiated allegations of abuse.”
She also said the agency, in an effort to change the culture in the group homes, is requiring workers to have high school diplomas and to pass psychological and drug tests.
But the laughably low standards for employment are a match for the low wages these jobs pay. Instead of addressing the problem at its source by raising the standards and the salaries, Cuomo is turning to politicians’ favorite solution — a brand-new bureaucracy.
The quality of care for the state’s disabled population is determined by the quality of workers providing that care, and that is where the reform should be focused.
Some of Cuomo’s proposals should be embraced, but they are the ones that could have been and should have been happening all along, such as the establishment of an employee hotline for reporting abuse, a statewide incident database and a list of employees banned from working with the disabled. It does not take 400 workers to set up those minimal safeguards, not even in New York.
Michael Carey, an advocate for the disabled whose 13-year-old autistic son was killed in state care in 2007, wants workers to call 911 in cases of abuse and wants a bill of rights for the disabled. He also wants video cameras set up in group homes and institutions, drug testing of staff, and an end to mandatory staff overtime. All those reforms, too, can and should take place immediately, without the creation of a new $50-million-a-year state agency.
Enforcing one state law — a law requiring that incidents that take place in state facilities in which a crime may have been committed be reported to the police — would go a long way toward reducing abuse. That law exists now, yet most of the roughly 13,000 allegations of abuse reported each year in state facilities are handled internally.
The current push for reforms was prompted by a New York Times investigation led by reporter Danny Hakim that found, among many other things, hundreds of employees who sexually abused, beat or taunted residents were transferred to other state group homes and were rarely prosecuted, let alone fired.
It’s going to take money to reform the system, and it’s going to take fresh blood. Burke is right to fire abusive front-line workers, but the reform must go much further. Supervisors who knew of abuse but failed to take steps to stop it should also be fired. Training requirements should be stiffened and must apply to new and existing workers. And salaries should be raised.
It may be necessary, as top-to-bottom reform is carried out, to hire special investigators who can suggest changes in personnel and policy. But for the long term, New York will not clean up one bureaucratic mess by layering another bureaucracy on top.
Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley and citizen representative Jody Chwiecko.