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CIR’s California Watch again named finalist for Pulitzer Prize

Broken Shield investigation that exposed patient abuse at state developmental centers a top contender for journalism's highest honor.

Photo by Nadia Borowski Scott Larry Ingraham's mantle includes mementos of his brother, Van Ingraham, including an old family photograph with a young Van playing with Larry, a 1999 Polaroid of Van and a ceramic angel.

For the second year in a row, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch today was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize – this time for uncovering systemic failures in protecting residents at the state’s developmental centers.

The California Watch series Broken Shield was a finalist in the public service category. The award went to the South Florida Sun Sentinel for its story on speeding police officers.

“This series truly gave a voice to the voiceless and held the government accountable,” said CIR’s Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal. “The results of the series have been extraordinary. Being recognized as a finalist is a terrific achievement. We are very proud of the newsroom.”

 

Added Editorial Director Mark Katches: “Our main objective for telling these stories is to draw attention to a problem – and that attention has already produced significant results for the residents of the state’s developmental centers.”

The series – which had already won the George Polk Award, top honors from the Online News Association and two awards from Investigative Reporters & Editors –  has prompted far-reaching change, including a criminal investigation, staff retraining and new laws. 

Reporter Ryan Gabrielson’s 18-month investigation about the Office of Protective Services snowballed over the course of 2012 – resulting in five major installments from February to November. The police force was set up specifically to protect the developmentally disabled living in the state’s five remaining board-and-care centers. But Gabrielson found that the department’s officers and detectives often fail to secure crime scenes and routinely delay interviews with key witnesses and suspects – leading to an alarming inability to solve crimes. 

Gabrielson detailed that dozens of women were sexually assaulted inside state centers, but police investigators didn’t order “rape kits” to collect evidence, a standard law enforcement tool. Police waited so long to investigate one sexual assault that the staff janitor accused of rape fled the country. The police force’s inaction also allowed abusive caregivers to continue molesting patients – even after the department had evidence that could have stopped future assaults.

In one egregious physical abuse case, a caregiver was suspected of using a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients. Yet the internal police force waited at least nine days to interview the caregiver, who was never arrested or charged with abuse.   

In addition to Gabrielson, several staff members in the newsroom contributed to the project – most notably Agustin Armendariz, who provided data analysis; Carrie Ching, who produced two videos for the series; Monica Lam who produced a broadcast video distributed to TV partners; and Robert Salladay, who edited the project along with Katches.

Last year, California Watch was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the local reporting category for its series On Shaky Ground, about faulty seismic safety oversight at K-12 schools.

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Lawmakers mull next steps for developmental centers

SACRAMENTO – State lawmakers weighed today whether to appoint an inspector general to oversee state centers for the developmentally disabled and close a center in Sonoma where patients suffered the worst instances of abuse, neglect and sexual assaults.

During a daylong hearing, members of a Senate budget subcommittee on health and human services heard testimony from state officials and advocates for the developmentally disabled but did not indicate what action they might take.

The proposal to create an inspector general met with opposition from the Department of Developmental Services, which objected to its cost. The idea also found little support among advocates and family members of the disabled, who say the state-run centers should be shut down.

The influential state Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended in its budget analysis that the Legislature create an independent Office of Inspector General to oversee the five developmental centers at a cost of $500,000 to $1 million. The inspector general would have the authority to review patient complaints, conduct audits, investigate allegations of wrongdoing and help prosecute individuals who threaten patients or staff.

Shawn Martin, representing the Legislative Analyst's Office, testified that a new layer of oversight is needed because having the Department of Developmental Services responsible for its own facilities hasn't worked.

 

“They have to be independent in order to be effective,” Martin said.

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Join our discussion on Pomona's developmental center

California Watch invites you to share your insights and experiences regarding the Lanterman Developmental Center in Pomona. On April 3, reporter Ryan Gabrielson, who has covered the state’s developmental centers in his series Broken Shield, will participate in a discussion on topics ranging from the closure of the Lanterman Developmental Center to soaring overtime pay for the centers' police force.

What does this development mean for the city of Pomona, the developmental center and its patients, and the people who live in surrounding communities?

We invite stakeholders to discuss this and other questions. The conversation will be moderated by Joaquin Alvarado, chief strategy officer for the Center for Investigative Reporting, the parent organization of California Watch. Gabrielson will discuss his investigative findings and answer questions.

Details

When: April 3, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Where: UC Riverside Extension campus, Conference Room A

1200 University Ave., Riverside

$5 parking on-site

RSVP: This event is free to the public, but registration is required: http://lantermandc.eventbrite.com.

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New director to take over troubled Sonoma disability center

A former employee of the Sonoma Developmental Center has been tapped to head California’s largest full-time care facility for the severely disabled, at a time when the institution is struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of patient abuse scandals.

The Department of Developmental Services announced Wednesday that Karen Faria, who worked at the Sonoma Developmental Center from 1985 to 2005, will become the embattled facility's latest executive director starting April 1.

The appointment comes in the wake of a California Watch series that uncovered serious allegations of patient abuse at the Sonoma Developmental Center. The reported abuses included cases of rape and molestation as well as allegations that a state worker used a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients.

The California Watch investigation exposed these cases and focused on failures of an internal police force to get to the bottom of the abuses. One-third of the 36 alleged rapes occurred at the Sonoma board-and-care center – one of five such facilities in California that house about 1,600 patients with severe disabilities.

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CIR’s California Watch wins Polk award for second straight year

We are proud to write today that the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch has won the George Polk Award for our series exposing flaws in the way a special state police force handles crimes against the developmentally disabled.

It is the second consecutive year that California Watch has won the prestigious George Polk Award. This year, we are being honored in the category of state reporting for Ryan Gabrielson’s extraordinary series “Broken Shield.”

 

The series has prompted far-reaching change, including a criminal investigation, staff retraining and new laws – all intended to bring greater safeguards and accountability.

Gabrielson was one of 14 Polk award winners announced today by Long Island University, which administers the prizes. University officials said more than 700 stories were submitted to the judges. Other winners include The New York Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bloomberg News, CBS News, The Washington Post and Mother Jones.

The Polk award is named after a CBS newsman murdered while covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

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What’s your ideal future for the Sonoma Developmental Center?

At a Jan. 30 community forum on the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center, a few themes consistently surfaced in the conversation with residents, families and workers at the board-and-care facility for the developmentally disabled. The Sonoma center has come under fire after an investigation by California Watch revealed abuse of patients and inept investigations by the Office of Protective Services, the state-run police force that operates at the center.

Our staff gathered more than 50 questions and many pages of notes from the event, which was sponsored by California Watch and the Sonoma Index-Tribune, and we wanted to share them here in an effort to keep the conversation going.

One of the issues addressed most frequently was how taxpayer money is spent within the Sonoma center and the state Department of Developmental Services at large. Some of the key questions asked by attendees: Is the money being spent properly? Are patients getting enough care? Are staffing levels adequate? One participant had this to offer:

"The SDC property is overkill for a population of 500 patients. Instead of waiting years (for the relocation of existing patients) why can't they relocate to a smaller, more modern and efficient facility?"

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Sonoma disability center staff weighs in on abuse claims

SONOMA – California’s largest full-time care center for the severely disabled needs more staff and accountability to correct major internal breakdowns that led to dozens of cases of alleged patient abuse, staff members said Wednesday at a public forum.

The Sonoma Developmental Center, one of five state-run board-and-care facilities, has been in crisis mode since last month, when the center lost its primary license to operate for repeatedly exposing patients to physical and sexual abuse and shoddy medical care.

Katrise Fraund, a longtime senior psychiatric technician at the Sonoma Developmental Center, said the scandal has clouded the typically high quality of care offered at the institution, whose patients have cerebral palsy, severe autism and other intellectual disabilities.

“Abuse of the disabled has happened all along at group homes and state facilities,” Fraund said. “There’s just less oversight in group homes than there is at Sonoma. The reality is you do what you can to fix it. You have to keep oversight and then focus on the things that work.”

Records reviewed by California Watch showed patients, parents and staff members at the Sonoma center had reported a dozen sexual assaults in the past four years. But the center’s internal police department, the Office of Protective Services, failed to order a single hospital-supervised rape examination for any of these alleged victims.

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State disability center forfeits funding over abuse

California's largest board-and-care center for the developmentally disabled will surrender more than $1 million a month in federal funding for failures to protect patients from abuse and provide quality medical care, state officials announced today.

In December, state regulators cited the Sonoma Developmental Center for numerous violations that put patients with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities at risk of serious injury and death. Regulators have threatened to close a major portion of the century-old institution, now home to more than 500 patients.

The state Department of Developmental Services, which operates the institution, this week agreed not to seek reimbursement from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid for services provided at its most troubled residences. The state singled out four out of 10 residential units at the Sonoma facility.

“While there are deficiencies in the management, training, and staffing in the Sonoma (intermediate care) units generally, the problems are more significant in Corcoran, Lathrop, Bemis and Smith,” Terri Delgadillo, director of the state’s developmental services department, wrote to the federal agency Thursday.

The department “is committed to fixing the problems in all of the units, but addressing the problems in these four units will take additional time," she said.

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Explainer: Investigating sexual abuse in California’s developmental centers

The support network for the disabled is a wide one. Find out how to get involved and share your stories.

Patients at California's five board-and-care centers for the developmentally disabled have accused caretakers and other employees of rape and molestation 36 times during the past four years.

The Office of Protective Services, the agency in charge of protecting this vulnerable population of 1,600 patients statewide, failed to order a single outside rape examinationfor any of the alleged victims, most of whom are female. These patients suffer from cerebral palsy, severe autism and other intellectual disabilities.

Under other circumstances, performing a rape examination is a routine part of a police investigation. Performed by specially trained nurses to find all manner of physical evidence, it is an important part of investigating sexual abuse allegations, identifying a suspect and solving sex crimes.

But this is often not the case at California’s developmental centers. Former detectives and patrol officers at three of the five centers say the Office of Protective Services blocked or ignored investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct.

 

In 2006, Jennifer, a patient at the Sonoma Developmental Center with severe intellectual disabilities, was found to have severe bruises across her chest, which she attributed to a caregiver at the centerwho abused her. Her mother was told by a social worker that the Office of Protective Services had thoroughly investigated Jennifer’s allegation but could not prove it.

Less than a year later, during a weekend visit to her family's home, Jennifer's family discovered she was pregnant. Records show that hospital staff either ignored or overlooked her condition.

Catch-22 in evidence collection

Four years ago, the Office of Protective Services implemented its first policy regarding the investigation of potential sex crimes. However, these guidelines often present a barrier to investigating sexual assaults, rather than helping. For example, the following requirements must be met for a “rape kit” examination to be ordered:

“A sexual assault occurred within the preceding 72 hours and there is potential for recovery of physical evidence of the recent sexual assault.”(Emphasis from original policy)

Experts on sexual assault investigations told California Watch that the phrase “potential for recovery” is problematic because detectives cannot tell what evidence exists before a patient is examined. It leaves them in a Catch-22:How do you know what evidence there is to collect if you are unable to collect it? Additionally, Roberta Hopewell, a detective at the Riverside Police Department, says the 72-hour time limit is outdated, as physical evidence sometimes can be recovered up to two weeks after an assault.

So what’s being done?

In September, Gov.Jerry Brown signed SB1522, which requires that developmental centers report alleged sexual assaults against patients to outside law enforcement. According to a statement, the law “will ensure developmental center investigators and outside law enforcement agencies work collaboratively to investigate unexplained injuries or allegations of abuse.”

How to get involved

The support network for the disabled is a wide one. These groups offer resources to find out more, as well as information on how to get involved. If you want to share your stories about developmental centers, we’d love to hear from you.

Californians for Disability Rights – California's oldest and largest organization of people with disabilities.
From the group’s website: CDR and its members fight for the independence, dignity and equality of all disabled persons.

Disability Rights Advocates – A nonprofit legal center dedicated to securing the civil rights of people with disabilities. All work is done pro bono.
From the group’s website: DRA advocates for disability rights through high-impact litigation, as well as research and education.

Disability Rights California – Provides free legal and advocacy services to low-income Californians with disabilities. All work is done pro bono.

From the group’s website: Advocate, educate, investigate and litigate to advance and protect the rights of Californians with disabilities.

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund – A national civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities.
From the group’s website: The mission of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund is to advance the civil and human rights of people with disabilities through legal advocacy, training, education, and public policy and legislative development.

National Disability Rights Network – Protection and advocacy for people with disabilities.

From the group’s website: Through training and technical assistance, legal support and legislative advocacy, NDRN works to create a society in which people with disabilities are afforded equality of opportunity and are able to fully participate by exercising choice and self-determination.

If you suspect abuse at one of California's developmental centers, please share your story with California Watch via the Public Insight Network. All information is confidential and could help inform our reporting on this topic.

Get more updates from our Broken Shield investigation as we publish them. Text “OPS” to 877877 and visit californiawatch.org/brokenshield

See what we found in our ongoing Broken Shield investigation. Download our series explainer to learn more.

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Video: In Jennifer's Room

A young developmentally disabled woman just wanted to be left alone. What happened next shattered a family.

In August 2006, caregivers at the Sonoma Developmental Center found dark blue bruises shaped like handprints covering the breasts of a patient named Jennifer. She accused a staff member of molestation, court records show. Jennifer’s injuries appeared to be evidence of sexual abuse, indicating that someone had violently grabbed her.

The Office of Protective Services opened an investigation. But detectives took no action because the case relied heavily on the word of a woman with severe intellectual disabilities. A few months later, court records show, officials at the center had indisputable evidence that a crime had occurred.

Credits:

Reported and narrated by Ryan Gabrielson
Directed, produced, and edited by Carrie Ching
Illustrated by Marina Luz
Transcript of mother's interview read by Evelyn Kelsey
Music:
"Haunted" by Jamie Evans
"Winter Sunshine" by Evgeny Grinko
"From Truth" and "The Time to Run" by Dexter Britain
Sound effects by grayseraphim and pfly

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