Leslie Morrison, head of the investigations unit at Disability Rights California, examined the state developmental centers' sexual abuse case files from 2009 to 2011.
Many families struggle to care for loved ones with disabilities like cerebral palsy or low IQs. The most severely debilitated often live in state run developmental centers. There are only five now, as California transitions to smaller group homes. But there are still about 1,600 people living in the big facilities, protected by a special police force. California Watch has been exploring the quality of that policing in a series of stories, and reporter Ryan Gabrielson wrote about what happens when families accuse caretakers of sexual assault. Guests: Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch; Leslie Morrison, head of the investigations unit at the advocacy group, Disability Rights California. Reporter: Rachael Myrow
Below is an edited transcript.
Ryan Gabrielson, reporter: At these five facilities there have been dozen of cases where patients have accused staff or caregivers of all kinds of sexual abuse. And when those cases come in, the Office of Protective Services’ Police Force hasn’t really taken, what law enforcement deems the first step in the investigations, which is often a physical investigation at an outside hospital. They’re called SART exams or rape kits. And it’s used to collect physical evidence, it’s often times the only thing that can lift a sex assault case beyond a he-said-she-said scenario. They haven’t done a single one of those in at least the past four years.
Rachael Myrow, host: And are we talking about one or two or ten cases?
Gabrielson: We’ve found documentation, along with Disability Rights California, of 36 cases.
Myrow: You know there are many listeners who may be thinking, “Gosh you know some of these patients may not be in control of their limbs all the time they might be suffering bruises for all sorts of reasons.” How do you know when you are looking at documentation that indicates there could be a serious issue there?
Gabrielson: Well when a patient gets pregnant, that’s pretty clear evidence that something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. When there are suspicious bruises in the shape of handprints on breasts or genital areas. There are signs of something more than an accident.
Myrow: We have with us in the studio as well Leslie Morrison, who’s head of the investigations unit at the advocacy group, Disability Rights California. Thank you for being here.
Leslie Morrison: Thank you for having me.
Myrow: You’ve been involved both with Ryan Gabrielson’s investigation and with the developmental community in California. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the documents you’ve been looking over in the last year or so?
Morrison: We’ve done a number of cases both in developmental centers and in the community involving the abuse of people with disabilities including people with developmental disabilities. The Department of Developmental Services, when some of these concerns came to light, invited us to review a number of incidents from 2009 through 2011. We specifically looked at unexpected deaths; we looked at sexual assault allegations, involving a staff member; and we also looked at suspicious injuries. And the department [was given] broad access to a number of documents that allowed us to do a pretty complete review of those cases.
Myrow: Is it your sense that these are systemic problems we’re talking about?
Morrison: Certainly abuse and neglect of people with disabilities is a systemic problem, both in institutions and in the community. Disability Rights California has long stood behind the idea that people should be moving into the community. Institutions are isolated settings, where incidents of abuse may not come to light. And so we are really behind the movement of moving folks out of these institutions and into the community, where they interface with more people and where more folks have an opportunity to talk with them, take a look at them and be aware of injuries of a concerning nature.
Myrow: After doing this comprehensive review, what’s your sense of what has stopped the Office of Protective Services from assigning detectives cases or seeking outside support from other agencies or experts?
Morrison: I do not believe the problem is with them not assigning detectives to cases. We would like to see them partner more closely with outside law enforcement and move more quickly to conduct timely investigations. Many of these cases we feel they should have invited outside law enforcement to come in quickly to gather forensic evidence. They should have sent victims to sexual assault nurse examiners, who are trained in doing forensic interviews and collecting forensic evidence that might indicate a sexual assault. So I can’t say the problem was with them assigning detectives, but with them moving quickly to be sure they have their resources and expertise to do some really complicated investigations.
Myrow: The Department of Developmental Services says, “Protocols have changed and heads haverolled. Particularly at Sonoma.” Back in September Governor Jerry Brown, signed legislation that requires centers to report alleged sexual assaults against patients to outside law enforcement agencies. Ryan Gabrielson, does that give you confidence that change is on the way or already in progress?
Gabrielson: Well, I think time will tell. The developmental centers and the Department of Developmental Services, as a whole has been resistant to change for decades. And has been called out on these problems repeatedly before. And so I would hesitate to express confidence until we’ve seen further proof, but I also take them at their word.