A New York State assemblyman and longtime advocate for the disabled filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging that his disabled son was hit and verbally abused at the Long Island group home where he resides.
Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) and his wife, Ellen, said in federal court that AHRC Nassau was responsible for Dwayne Edwards, the employee the Weisenbergs allege repeatedly abused their son three years ago. AHRC is a local chapter of the nation’s largest provider of service to people with developmental disabilities.
“Ricky’s 54. He’s sweet. He’s docile. He’s not aggressive. He’s a baby. And he can’t cry. He can’t speak,” Weisenberg said. “If a guy does something like this, he doesn’t belong working.”
According to the lawsuit filed in Brooklyn, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages, Edwards was fired but now works as a caregiver at the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County. Other staff members told investigators that they saw Edwards hit Ricky Weisenberg in the back of the head, flick his ears and neck with his finger and call him “nasty and worthless” and derogatory names in an internal report that concluded “the allegation of physical and psychological abuse is substantiated.”
AHRC Nassau said Monday that the abuse allegation was reported on April 6, 2009, the employee was “immediately relieved of his duties,” an investigation concluded three days later substantiated the allegation, and the worker was fired the next day. “We are disappointed that our longtime friend would choose to name us in a lawsuit of this nature,” the nonprofit said, noting Weisenberg had seemed to be satisfied with its response and has been a regular speaker at its events in the three years since and encouraged other parents to follow his lead and donate money.
Calls to United Cerebral Palsy were not immediately returned Monday.
Edwards told The New York Times in Monday’s editions that he never abused Weisenberg’s son. “There was no harm done to anybody. There was no abuse,” he said.
Weisenberg was notified in 2009 of the incidents involving his son under a state law he sponsored named for Jonathan Carey, a disabled 13-year-old who was smothered in 2007 by an aide at O.D. Heck, a state residential facility near Albany. However, names of staff and victims were blacked out from the report. He subsequently got legislation passed to establish a central registry of qualified direct care workers, intended to help prevent abusers from getting hired by the state or another nonprofit in New York.
That measure was to take effect in August, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo got legislative passage of a major overhaul of disabled care in New York, including establishment of a worker registry. He has not signed that bill yet. Most provisions would take effect next summer.
“Let’s make it happen now,” said Ilann Maazel, the attorney who obtained $5 million in damages from the state for the Carey family and filed Monday’s lawsuit against Edwards and AHRC Nassau. He has two similar cases pending in federal court alleging chronic abuse of another patient at O.D. Heck and against a nonprofit provider in Brooklyn. “We have cases that haven’t been filed that we’re investigating,” he said.
“We see just an epidemic of abuse in facilities throughout New York state,” Maazel said. “It’s a major problem that I think the governor recognizes that needs to be addressed in a very serious and proactive way.”
Wherever he goes to speak as a parent, Weisenberg said he hears from others with similar problems. “As late as two weeks ago, I was speaking to a group of 50 people. Five in that group reported children being abused and nobody investigated. Nobody cared.”
As Cuomo outlined his legislation in May, he told a room overflowing with the disabled and advocates that there were more than 10,000 allegations of abuse against disabled New Yorkers in state-funded facilities last year, and that they deserve protection.
The state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, responsible for the care of about 126,000 disabled, said it has sought to fire more than 200 staff since Cuomo appointed Commissioner Courtney Burke in April 2011, nearly quadrupling the number of termination cases in a policy overhaul intended to show intolerance for abuse.
Weisenberg said he’s anxiously awaiting the opportunity to work with the governor on his program, and that any money from the lawsuit will be given to agencies that take care of people with special needs. He filed the suit now, he said, “because I want to put a face on what’s really, what’s going on.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.