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Abuse Reporting Laws Fail to Protect Residents of Centers for Developmentally Disabled

In April 2012, NPR told the story of a case of severe abuse in a state-run home for the developmentally disabled in Orange County. The home, much like the other four government-operated developmental centers in California, was established to provide a safe environment for residents and to hire staff to tend to their needs. Far from protecting and caring for the residents, the article suggested that staff was physically abusive and that the authorities designated to investigate were negligent in their duties.


“While we often associate abuse with the elderly, it is also, unfortunately, a widespread problem among those with disabilities,” explained an Orange County injury lawyer


NPR reported on both specific incidents of potential abuse or neglect in California state homes for the disabled as well as on general abuse patterns. For instance, NPR reported on the case of a severely autistic man named Van Ingraham who spent 42 years in a state-operated development home in Costa Mesa called Fairview. Van entered the home when he was eight and lived there until 2007 when he died of a broken neck and crushed spinal cord. Medical experts described the death as a homicide. 


Van's brother, an ex-police officer named Larry Ingraham, is vocal about expressing his belief that what happened to his brother was caused by abuse within the state home. Larry's suspicions are bolstered by what the neurosurgeon told him at the time of Van's death, by the opinions of the outside medical experts who expressed alarm, and by his recollection of past signs of abuse, including broken bones, a black eye and various abrasions. While Larry blames himself for not knowing what was going on, he also believes that law enforcement and the state are not doing enough to help hold people who commit abuse accountable. 


California law has established a mandate that those charged with the care of disabled individuals must report any knowledge of abuse to designated investigators with the State Department of Mental Health or the State Department of Developmental Services. Abuse may also be reported to local law enforcement.


While this system is supposed to protect the developmentally disabled, NPR suggests that it has not been working that way.  The major problems stem from the fact that doctors are allegedly being encouraged to ignore or even cover-up abuses while the law enforcement agency vested with responsibility to oversee investigations appears to be failing to take action.  


According to an interview with a physician who had worked at the developmental center in Sonoma, the doctor encountered injuries on every shift he had during the 10 years he worked at the facility. The physician, Dr. Van Pena, reported that while he'd originally photographed the patients' injuries and documented them in their medical records, the photographs were cut from these records. In response to Pena's complaints about the removal of the photographs, administrators told Pena to stop taking pictures. 


State investigations seldom bring justice for the victims. California Watch, the non-partisan Center for Investigative Reporting, indicated that of the hundreds of cases of reported patient abuse at developmental centers handled by the Office of Protective Services, few resulted in arrests or prosecutions. 

Taking Action


With neither law enforcement nor those responsible for overseeing the California developmental centers taking action in cases of alleged abuse, family members and disabled individuals are left with few options. A civil lawsuit for neglect or intentional wrongdoing may be the only choice available to seek justice for abuses. 


A civil lawsuit may be brought against the party responsible for the abuse but also against the state hospital if the hospital is lax in its employee screening, in its policies on resident care, in taking action against abusers, or in otherwise maintaining a safe environment. Because the state hospital enjoys limited protections through governmental immunity under section 817 of the California Government Code, it will be necessary for those who wish to file a civil lawsuit to prove that the case falls within the statutory exceptions. There are a number of possible exemptions that these abuse cases can fall within, however, so filing suit against the state for the abuse occurring in their hospitals should be possible provided the abuse and injury can be proven. Larry Ingraham, for example, received $800,000 in a civil settlement with the state after his brother's death.  


The problem with a civil lawsuit as the only means of preventing abuse, however, is twofold. First, not every disabled person has a family member or advocate who is going to be aware of the abuse and file a civil suit on his or her behalf. Second, the civil lawsuit places the onus on the plaintiff to prove abuse, which can be difficult if medical personnel are not properly documenting injuries in state developmental homes or if the disabled person is otherwise unable to communicate to family members the extent of abuse occurring. 


Additional information on the laws concerning the elderly and disabled is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.


To request one of these free resources, or to speak with an Orange County injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596. 

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