9 deaths, no charges raise questions about oversight agency

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Posted: May 19, 2016 10:47 AM
9 deaths, no charges raise questions about oversight agency

MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — Little more than names and incident numbers appear on a Long Island medical examiner's list of nine developmentally disabled people who died in state care since 2013, but this much is known for sure: All the deaths came under a cloud of abuse or neglect allegations, and none resulted in criminal charges.

The one-page list titled "Abuse and Neglect with Death Involved" surfaced as part of a Freedom of Information request by an advocate who called it only the latest example of how New York's oversight agency for the disabled in state care, the Justice Center, is not doing enough to pursue suspicious cases.

Questioned by The Associated Press about the handling of the deaths, all in Long Island's Suffolk County, state and local officials responded with conflicting accounts. The Justice Center says it told county prosecutors about the cases, in accordance with state law, but prosecutors say that's not true. The medical examiner's office says it referred two cases to police for further investigation. After police denied for days that they got them, they acknowledged this week that they did.

"It screams for a federal civil rights and criminal investigation," said Michael Carey, who became an advocate for the disabled after his son was suffocated in 2007 by a state group home worker who was later convicted of manslaughter.

Carey has become a frequent critic of the Justice Center, established in 2013 to protect the 1 million disabled, addicted and mentally ill in state care. Its mandate is to probe all allegations of wrongdoing by caretakers, with the power to refer cases to local prosecutors or bring criminal charges itself.

But an AP analysis last year found it rarely uses that power, with just 2.5 percent of the more than 7,000 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect resulting in criminal charges. Records released earlier this year showed the Justice Center declined to investigate most of the nearly 1,400 deaths of developmentally disabled people in state care in the past two years, leaving the majority of the investigations to the caretaker facilities themselves.

Seeking to find out exactly how often the Justice Center refers deaths in state care to local officials for criminal investigation, Carey filed a sweeping public records request of every county prosecutor and medical examiner in New York.

Suffolk County was the only one of 62 counties to offer up — by name — the suspicious deaths it received from the Justice Center over the past three years. Three other counties gave just numbers, a total of 15 such deaths. The list from Suffolk's medical examiner's office contained no details, and the Justice Center refused to elaborate about individual cases, citing privacy laws that entitle only relatives to health records and abuse reports.

One of those families, located by the AP, plans to use those documents to sue the group home where a developmentally disabled woman lived before dying last year.

Carolyn Jirak, 62, spent nearly her entire life in state-funded care, classified as nonverbal with the intellectual capacity of a young child.

Her sister Catherine Jirak Monetti contends Jirak's death followed weeks of mistreatment, including an unexplained broken kneecap that was untreated for days, an ankle wound that became severely infected with cellulitis, and prescribed antibiotics that weren't given for three days. Jirak was eventually taken to a hospital with pneumonia and fever, and died 10 days later of respiratory failure.

A report the family received on an internal investigation by group home operator, Independent Group Home Living Inc., found there was no abuse. But Monetti is not convinced.

"She did not die of natural causes," the sister said.

Another death on the list, that of 65-year-old Joseph Schuele, raised red flags with his former caregiver, Danielle Pouletsos. She said she was told by a former colleague that Schuele died in November in the hospital from sepsis, a severe systemic response that followed a urinary tract infection at his Maryhaven Center of Hope group home.

Pouletsos, a former training coordinator for Maryhaven who helped care for Schuele from 2006 through 2013, said sepsis developing from a urinary tract infection could be a sign of negligence and may have been prevented "if he was in a different housing situation with medical oversight."

Independent Group Home Living and Maryhaven Center did not respond to requests for comment about Jirak's and Schuele's cases.

While the Justice Center declined to disclose its inquiries into the nine deaths case by case, it did say, in general, it has confirmed four administrative findings of neglect.

Spokeswoman Diane Ward said center investigators ruled out eight other neglect allegations while confirming eight instances of caretakers or supervisors obstructing incident reporting. Three deaths remain under investigation.

Under state law, the Justice Center must immediately notify the local district attorney and medical examiner of deaths involving allegations of abuse and neglect, even while the center conducts its own investigation. Whether that was followed in the Long Island deaths is in dispute.

Ward told the AP that the center notified the local prosecutor and medical examiner in six cases the day it received each death report, another the next day, and another eight days later. In the ninth case, the medical examiner was notified by a hospital where the person died.

As proof, the Justice Center provided the AP with notification documents, with confidential information blacked out, that were sent to the email addresses the center had for the prosecutor and medical examiner.

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said it "has not received referrals from the Justice Center, the county medical examiner or any county or state agency regarding the deaths of these individuals."

The Suffolk County medical examiner's office said that, out of the nine cases, it received seven notifications, was able to conduct four autopsies that resulted in two possible homicide cases referred to the Suffolk County Police Department.

After the department initially said it never saw the two cases, Suffolk police Lt. Kevin Beyrer came back several days later to say it did, concluding one was a suicide. The other case was initially rejected for a homicide probe, he said, but now investigators are taking another look.

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Virtanen reported from Albany, New York.