Op-ed: Prevent abuse of people with developmental disabilities
The inaction by our state government when people are reportedly abused, neglected, exploited and sexually assaulted is deeply distressing, according to guest columnists Sue Elliott and Ed Holen.
Special to The Times
RECENT findings about Washington’s failures to protect individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities suggest our state has fallen woefully short in a fundamental litmus test of how society should support its most vulnerable citizens.
Most recently, the state’s failure to protect these individuals was highlighted in a report, “Too Little Too Late,” by Disability Rights Washington.
In an alarming case cited in the report, professional caregivers reported seeing a co-worker stomp on a client’s genitals. After the incident was reported, it took a week before an investigation by the state Department of Social and Health Services began. The department allowed the caregiver to continue working.
Almost one-third of backlogged complaints were closed without any investigation at all, according to the report.
The inaction by our state government when people are reportedly abused, neglected, exploited and sexually assaulted is deeply distressing.
The state must strengthen its investigations of abuse and neglect and fund timely and thorough investigations. Immediate action should be taken.
As advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we know the system is extremely fragile and significantly underfunded, but this is a crisis that cannot wait for better economic or political conditions.
We recommend the following actions to address the report’s key recommendations. These actions represent a major step toward ending and preventing future abuse, neglect, sexual assault and exploitation in our state Developmental Disabilities system.
The state must make sure that all service providers understand they are required to report abuse, neglect, sexual assault and exploitation immediately — now, not hours or days later. The state Legislature should consider fining service providers who fail to report.
All complaints must be investigated thoroughly and completely in a timely manner.
The Legislature needs to appropriate funding to hire additional state investigators who specialize in cases involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Legislature must assure that the Department of Social and Health Services has the tools needed to investigate, certify and enforce quality of services.
When a person with an intellectual and developmental disability is sexually assaulted or raped, law enforcement must make an arrest, and local prosecutors must prosecute the alleged perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.
Because the system that supports and serves people with developmental disabilities in Washington is underfunded and fragile, the state must provide additional funds to ensure that people receiving community residential services also receive an employment or day program to reduce isolation and increase community involvement.
State government has special responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of people who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. But we urge all the citizens of our state to share in this commitment.
All of us must realize that a disability is a natural part of human life, and the presence of a disability does not diminish a person’s fundamental right to live a life free from abuse, neglect, sexual assault and exploitation.
Sue Elliott is executive director of The Arc of Washington State; Ed Holen is executive director of the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council.