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Hearings sought to examine handling of patient abuse cases

Monica Lam/California WatchDonna Lazzini embraces son Timothy, a resident of the Sonoma Developmental Center who died in 2005. The picture is part of a family photo collage celebrating his life.

California lawmakers said they would hold public hearings and conduct on-site investigations into a police force charged with probing patient deaths and suspicious injuries at the state's institutions for the developmentally disabled.

The calls for hearings came in response to a California Watch series published this week that uncovered numerous mistakes made by the police force, the Office of Protective Services, when investigating potential abuse and deaths at the five centers. Despite 327 substantiated patient abuse cases and 762 unexplained injuries at the institutions since 2006, hardly any of the cases have led to prosecutions.

Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee, announced today that lawmakers would examine the Office of Protective Services.

“These reports call into question the efficacy of the investigators employed by the department,” Liu said in a statement, “and suggest that this inability to handle complex investigations has resulted – literally – in people getting away with murder.”

Liu's counterpart in Assembly, Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said lawmakers need to examine the developmental centers firsthand. During an interview this morning on KQED’s "Forum" program, Beall said he wanted to call “field hearings” of the Assembly Human Services Committee that would include tours of the facilities where disabled patients live.

The board-and-care institutions – in Sonoma, Los Angeles, Riverside, Tulare and Orange counties – are home to about 1,800 patients with cerebral palsy, severe autism and intellectual disabilities. The state spends about $577 million to operate the institutions, or roughly $300,000 per patient.

In its report, California Watch also detailed mistakes into the investigation of a suspicious patient death at Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County. The patient, 50-year-old Van Ingraham, was discovered on his bedroom floor with a broken neck in the early morning on June 6, 2007. He died six days later.

Police at Fairview did not collect physical evidence from the scene and waited five days to begin interviewing potential witnesses. No arrests have been made in the case.

Terri Delgadillo, director of the Department of Developmental Services, which operates the centers, said in a statement today that she welcomes additional scrutiny from state lawmakers.

"We are fully committed to working with the Legislature to further enhance resident protection at developmental centers because the health and safety of the individuals we serve is our highest priority,” Delgadillo said.  

Elizabeth Ashford, spokeswoman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said a statement today from Diana Dooley, secretary for health and human services, reflected the administration’s position.

Dooley said: “We take these allegations seriously and share the concern that patient advocates, families and legislators have expressed about the processes to ensure effective safety and security in our state developmental centers. We have engaged the services of special investigators and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to protect the residents we serve.”

Robert Oakes, Liu’s spokesman, said the Senate committee is working to schedule a hearing and set its agenda.

Greg deGiere, public policy director at The Arc of California, an advocate for the developmentally disabled, said hearings are an effective tool to create public pressure on problems. He said he hopes the hearings prompt legislation to repair the Office of Protective Services and get outside police more involved in abuse cases.

“If it’s a high-profile kind of thing," he said, "... just airing it can persuade someone to do something.”

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