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Cuomo’s commissioner presents new special needs legislation at JCC

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sent the head of his Office for People with Developmental Disabilities to Jefferson Community College on Thursday to present his most recent legislation to protect New Yorkers with special needs or disabilities from abuse.

Commissioner Courtney E. Burke unveiled the new standards for prosecuting people in state-operated and licensed facilities who abuse clients with special needs.

“There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good work every day,” she said. “This focuses on the negative, the bad apples.”

The standards will include making definitions of abuse specific and consistant between agencies, hiring special prosecutors and creating a statewide 24-hour hot line not specific to any agency to help those with special needs feel better protected and more comfortable reporting abuse in a facility.

“Right now, there is a broad definition for abuse,” said Mrs. Burke. “Because of this, if you are dealing with law enforcement, it is confusing to them.”

Mrs. Burke said more than a million people in the state have special needs or a disability. According to a press release from the governor’s office, “Last year, there were more than 10,000 allegations of abuse against New Yorkers with special needs and disabilities in state operated, certified, or licensed facilities and programs. However, the state has never had a consistent and comprehensive standard for tracking and investigating complaints or punishing guilty workers.”

If the state Senate and Assembly come to a final agreement on the bill, the new Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs will ensure every case will be fully investigated immediately by local law enforcement as soon as it is reported on the hot line. The legislation also would conduct criminal background checks on everyone who applies to work in assisted living or government facilities and keep a statewide register to keep those with records of serious abuse from being employed. Mrs. Burke believes it will also cover special-needs children in foster care.

Because the Justice Center will be familiar with the population it is working with, it would be able to help those whose cognitive disabilities hinder then from speaking lucidly on the witness stand.

Also implemented will be new penalties if a person is found guilty of abuse. According to the press release, the legislation could raise the top penalty level to five to 15 years in prison.

“Under current law, crimes involving endangering the welfare of people with disabilities and special needs are classified as an ‘A’ misdemeanor, an ‘E’ felony, and a ‘D’ felony bearing a top penalty of two and a half to seven years in prison. In addition, the proposal provides that an individual in a residential facility cannot consent to sex with an employee, thereby removing the prosecutor’s obligation to prove that any sexual activity was non-consensual,” the press release states.

Mrs. Burke said her agency is piloting the use of security cameras in state-owned transportation vehicles, a move that has met some criticism.

She is confident the bill will pass and will be fully implemented by April 2013. She did not plan on presenting the legislation at any other north country locations.

“I think it will happen in phases,” she said, “They can’t start prosecuting cases until they have the staff on board.”

For more information on the proposed Justice Center, visit www.governor.ny.gov/Justice4SpecialNeeds/home.

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