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Independent oversight proposed for developmental centers

Monica Lam/California Watch The Office of Protective Services is an in-house police force at California's developmental centers.

The state’s influential legislative analyst is recommending that the California Legislature create an independent Office of Inspector General to monitor state developmental centers where police failed to properly investigate patient deaths, abuse, sexual assault and neglect.

The proposal from the Legislative Analyst’s Office comes in response to an 18-month investigation by California Watch into rapes and other instances of patient abuse at the Sonoma Developmental Center and four other board-and-care centers around the state.

“Given the vulnerable nature of the population served by the Developmental Centers, and the ongoing nature of the health and safety problems that have plagued the Developmental Centers for more than a decade, we believe such additional oversight in the form of an Office of Inspector General is warranted,” the analyst’s office said in its budget analysis for the coming fiscal year.

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A Senate budget subcommittee on health and human services is scheduled to discuss the proposal Thursday.

In its investigation, California Watch found 36 cases of alleged rape and molestation at the centers, which house more than 1,600 patients with severe disabilities. The investigation also uncovered allegations that a state worker used a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients at the Sonoma Developmental Center.

The Office of Protective Services, the internal police force assigned to protect residents of the state facilities, routinely mishandled cases by failing to collect evidence, waiting too long to interview witnesses or suspects, and not ordering rape kits in cases of alleged sexual assault.

“In 2012, a series of reports by California Watch reported suspicious investigative practices that were conducted in response to major crime investigations, including of suspicious deaths, at a number of Developmental Centers,” the legislative analyst’s office said. “The series brought into question the training and qualifications of the Office of Protective Services’ investigators and their ability to handle DC (developmental center) cases.”

The analyst’s office recommended the creation of an Office of Inspector General to address breakdowns in oversight and “safeguard the integrity of the state’s developmental center system.”

The new office would cost $500,000 to $1 million, the analyst’s office estimated. The inspector general would have the authority to conduct a formal review of patient complaints at developmental centers, investigate allegations of wrongdoing and work with local law enforcement to prosecute individuals who threaten patients or staff.

The Office of Protective Services declined to comment on the proposal and referred questions to the Department of Developmental Services, which oversees the centers. A spokeswoman for the department had no comment.

Only one other department in California, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has an independent oversight agency.

The series of stories by California Watch prompted the state to adopt stricter policies to protect patients, install a new top administrator at the Sonoma Developmental Center and assign the California Highway Patrol to oversee policing of that center.

Also in response to the articles, Gov. Jerry Brown signed two laws aimed at better protecting patients living in the centers. A third bill, which passed the Senate Human Services Committee on Tuesday, would mandate that rape kit examinations be conducted if a patient at any state-operated institution accuses an employee of sexual assault.

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