For the parents of those with intellectual disabilities, the worry never stops. Their adult children — many of whom are in group homes or day programs — remain ever-vulnerable to abuse and neglect at the hands of their caregivers.
Massachusetts, through the independent Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DCCP), maintains a hotline to report such abuse or neglect as well as State Police investigators on its team to follow up. But in many instances, even when the commission substantiates allegations of abuse, the abuser simply moves on to the next facility.
That has to stop.
Last year the Legislature came close to passage of a bill creating a state registry of abusers. It passed the Senate but never came up for a vote in the House. The bill included a requirement that the Department of Developmental Services and all employers who serve people with developmental disabilities would have to check the registry before hiring a prospective caretaker.
The bill is back on the legislative agenda this year, with supportive lawmakers attempting to strike a balance between the rights of this vulnerable population and the rights of those accused of abuse. New language creating an appeals process should help resolve that conflict.
The bill is known on Beacon Hill as “Nicky’s Law,” named for Nicky Chan, whose parents, Nick and Cheryl Chan, have been fighting for several years to establish just such a registry, after their then 21-year-old son, who is autistic and nonverbal, was abused while attending a day program.
The inability of many victims to speak for themselves makes criminal prosecutions difficult and often unlikely to succeed. That was the case for Nicky Chan, and so there was nothing to prevent his abuser from once again working in group homes.
Nicky’s story is all too common.
The Commission has seen a 30 percent increase in abuse allegations made to its hotline over the past five years and nearly a 20 percent increase in allegations of sexual abuse against people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, DCCP Executive Director Nancy Alterio testified last fall. The DCCP, which handles incidents involving disabled persons between the ages of 18 and 59 (other state agencies deal with abuse of those under 18 or those considered elderly), receives more than 11,000 reports of abuse on its hotline each year, about half involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
So this is no small problem, and it is growing — or, at the very least, the willingness of victims and of their parents to come forward is growing. But that’s of little benefit if nothing comes of those actions — and if abusers remain free to move from one set of vulnerable clients to another.
The DCCP is precisely the right agency to continue to do what it does best — substantiate claims of abuse. And once it does, those names would go on the registry — even absent a criminal conviction. Yes, there should be an appeals process, and yes, the redrafted bill will probably include a provision that will allow those listed to petition for removal after five years.
At its last public hearing, the bill won the support of a number of people who work in the industry and of a union representing human service employees. They know that one bad actor can certainly ruin a life, but one bad actor can also ruin the reputation of an otherwise decent facility and its staff. Doing everything to prevent that is in everyone’s best interest.
Getting Nicky’s Law on the books will be a giant step forward.