Investigative series finds poor oversight of abuse probes at California institutions

National Public Radio recently featured an extensive investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch and KQEDthat are bringing renewed scrutiny of California’s system for responding to abuse complaints at its five state-run developmental centers.

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The series of articles, which began in February, found that despite hundreds of cases of reported physical abuse, sexual abuse and unexplained deaths at the centers since 2006, a mere two case investigations led to arrests.

The series focuses on the Office of Protective Services, an internal police office designed to monitor the facilities and takes the lead on abuse complaints at the facilities. Unlike in most other states, where complaints at state-run homes are reported to local law enforcement agencies, the Office of Protective Service must clear cases with the administrators and civil attorneys in Sacramento attorneys before sharing cases with local police and prosecutors.

For some disability advocates, this system creates inherent conflicts of interests and less accountability.

“If there’s a crime committed, you let the criminal investigators go in first rather than the institution bagging the bloody shirt,” Jane Hudson, senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, told California Watch.

The reports question the Office’s evidence collecting patterns, saying that there are unnecessary delays that taints investigations into injuries and potential abuse.

From 2008 to 2010, the centers saw a 40 percent rise in reports of patient abuse, despite a 12 percent population drop in the number of patients living in the facilities.

From 2008 to January 2012, the centers fired 67 employees, though it is not clear how many, if any, of these employees were reported for cases of abuse. From 2004 to 2010, the centers paid out nearly $9 million in legal settlements, from 68 cases, though much of this information remains confidential.

In response to the stories, two California legislators have proposed bills requiring the Office of Protective Services to share more information with local law enforcement agencies. Reports of abuse would also go to local law enforcement agencies and Disability Rights California.

California spent $577 million this fiscal year to run its developmental centers, or an average of $320,000 per year per patient. The centers, which employ more than 5,200 people, house about 1,800 patients.