Disability abuse series earns Pulitzer nomination

An 18-month California Watch investigation into the state’s five developmental centers – that uncovered rampant abuse, sexual assaults, and nonexistent protection for the state’s must vulnerable residents – was recognized as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the public service category.

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“This series truly gave a voice to the voiceless and held the government accountable. The results of the series have been extraordinary. Being recognized as a finalist is a terrific achievement. We are very proud of the newsroom,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the parent company of California Watch, in a news release.

The state Office of Protective Services is a special police force tasked with overseeing the 1,800 residents with severe disabilities in the state’s developmental centers. The investigation, which ran in five installments between February and November 2012, found that the Office routinely failed to do basic police work at the centers, even in the case of mysterious deaths.

Between 2006 and February 2012, there were an 327 reported abuse cases in the centers. Only two arrests were made.

Even more disturbingly, California Watch found that despite evidence of 36 sexual assaults allegations during a four-year span, the Office failed to “order a single hospital-supervised rape examination for any of these alleged victims.”

California Watch also unveiled extensive evidence of police guards harming patients with Tasers. One officer allegedly used a Taser to injure dozen of patients. He was not investigated until nine days later and never charged with a crime.

While this was happening, police guards in the office accumulated salaries well north of six figures due to extensive overtime work. Many of these officers openly told California Watch that they would sleep during these overtime sessions.

In response, the California Legislature passed two bills in September, requiring that the centers report allegations of abuse and deaths to local law enforcements and Disability Rights California.

The state has also pulled state certification for the Sonoma Develomental Center, home of the most notorious abuse and the state’s largest institution, while determining whether to close the facility for good.

Disability Rights California is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.