A society is — or should be — judged by how well it protects its most vulnerable citizens. But when it comes to protections for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Massachusetts still has a long way to go.
And by every statistic available, the problem of physical and sexual abuse is growing worse with every passing year.
“It is an epidemic of abuse against people with disabilities,” Nancy Alterio, executive director of Massachusetts’ Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), told a legislative oversight committee recently.
One way to make a dent in the problem is rather straightforward: a registry of caretakers against whom claims of abuse have been substantiated. The idea has gone by many names — often named for those victimized. The current version is called “Nicky’s Law,” after Nicky Chan, whose parents, Nick and Cheryl Chan, were made aware of a caretaker’s physical abuse of their son. The case against their son’s abuser actually went to court — few make it that far — but the caretaker was found not guilty and can, therefore, continue to work in group homes.
“I can tell you that the systems that are in place are not working,” testified Anna Eves, vice president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Families and Advocates. Her son, too, was the victim of abuse and neglect last year. Abuse claims were substantiated against seven people who worked with her son. Two of those workers were still on the job, she said.
The problem is that in many instances the victim is nonverbal, and absent visual evidence — and, sad to say in some cases, even with visual evidence — cases may be “substantiated” by the DPPC but not result in a successful criminal prosecution. (The standard for the latter is much higher.)
The victim remains the victim. But the abusing caregiver is free to move on to the next group home.
The numbers alone are horrifying. Last year the DPPC received 11,895 reports of abuse on the 24/7 hotline it operates — half of them involving people with intellectual and development disabilities. Of those reports, 878 dealt with allegations of sexual abuse — 387 involving people with intellectual disabilities, 409 involving those with mental health disabilities.
DPPC has seen a 30 percent increase in abuse allegations in the past five years, Alterio testified.
Thursday, members of a number of advocacy groups, including the Arc of Massachusetts, plan a vigil at the State House to make one last push for the registry legislation this year. Nicky’s Law, originally filed by state Senator Mike Moore of Millbury and state Representative Linda Dean Campbell of Methuen , passed the Senate 36-0 last summer but got stalled in the House Ways and Means Committee when the Legislature ended its formal sessions.
The bill was actually much improved as it made its way through the Senate, which added due process safeguards for accused caregivers, including an appeals process, and put the registry under the umbrella of the DPPC.
Massachusetts has made significant improvements in how its agencies handle reports of abuse and the level of services it now provides to victims. But all of that is after the fact. The registry can help prevent abuse by ridding the system of those who have no business being left to care for our most vulnerable citizens. They ought not have to wait another year for the Legislature to act.