Monica Lam/California WatchDonna Lazzini embraces her son, Timothy Lazzini, a resident of the Sonoma Developmental Center who died in 2005.
California lawmakers have asked for a state audit into police investigations of suspicious patient deaths and injuries at institutions for the developmentally disabled.
In a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, and Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, call for a broad examination of how state-run developmental centers safeguard patients.
“The goal is to protect the clients and to give them the best possible service,” Anderson said in an interview. “We’re not convinced one way or the other. We just want to get to the truth.”
Last week, the state Health and Human Services Agency said it had engaged the services of special investigators to look into safety and security at the developmental centers. The agency is awaiting results from a review of the centers conducted by outside consultants since 2010.
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The Office of Protective Services, the police force at the five state developmental centers, has made numerous mistakes when investigating potential patient abuse, a California Watch series reported last week. Despite 327 substantiated patient abuse cases and 762 unexplained injuries at the institutions since 2006, hardly any of the cases have led to prosecutions.
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.
The state Department of Developmental Services, which runs the centers and the police force, hired an Alabama-based consulting firm, the Consortium on Innovative Practices, to review operations across the institutions. Rebecca Wright, the firm’s president, said in an interview two weeks ago that discussions on how to upgrade police investigations began in July 2010.
Wright said that Corey Smith, the Office of Protective Services chief, had in recent months taken a "greater lead" on the review of his department. Referring to Smith and his team, Wright said: “They are working on drafts of those things now."
Wright declined to speak specifically about how the police force wanted to improve its investigations or say whom she had hired to advise them. She did not return phone calls to discuss any recent developments.
In their request, Beall and Anderson said they wanted the state auditor to focus on what standards exist for the Office of Protective Services and how well it has met them. The lawmakers also want details on how state agencies and the Legislature monitor the police force and if that oversight needs to improve.
“We need to get control of this to ensure nothing bad is happening,” Anderson said.
State lawmakers also announced last week that they would hold public hearings and conduct on-site investigations of the Office of Protective Services. The state Senate and Assembly’s human services committees are working to schedule a date and witnesses to testify at a hearing in March.
In its report, California Watch 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.