Despite high numbers of substantiated patient abuse cases at California institutions caring for disabled adults, a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that there are very few subsequent prosecutions. This disparity came to light after California Watch, a watchdog agency that frequently focuses on issues such as the public’s health and welfare, blew the whistle. The agency published a series of reports about flawed investigations conducted by a police force responsible for scrutinizing instances of potential abuse or death at state institutions for disabled adults. Our San Diego elder abuse lawyer has handled several cases against state-run facilities for the developmentally disabled, so our firm understands the unique and complex issues that such cases raise. For example, in cases involving dependent adults, many victims may not be able to adequately describe the abuse they have suffered making it crucial for their advocates to investigate all issues suggesting a pattern of neglect or abuse.
The Office of Protective Services (OPS) is a police force dedicated to investigating patient deaths and suspicious injuries at state-run facilities in California. However, since 2006 there have been 327 substantiated patient abuse cases and 762 unexplained injuries at five state-run institutions, yet few of those cases have led to prosecutions. The board-and-care institutions—located in Sonoma, Los Angeles, Riverside, Tulare, and Orange counties—are home to approximately 1,800 patients with cerebral palsy, severe autism, and intellectual disabilities. The relatively few prosecutions, as well as suspicious circumstances in certain cases, suggest that the OPS investigations are seriously flawed.
In one instance, a 50-year-old patient at Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County was found on his bedroom floor with a broken neck in 2007. The man died six days later. In spite of the suspicious circumstances, including the man’s relatively young age, police at the institution did not collect physical evidence from the scene while investigating the Orange County suspicious patient death. They also waited five days before beginning to interview potential witnesses. No arrests were ever made in the case, and it is possible that it will never be clear exactly what happened due to the shoddy investigative work.
The family hired an Orange County nursing home abuse attorney and sued the state, ultimately winning an $800,000 wrongful death settlement. A San Diego wrongful death suit is intended to compensate the heirs of the victim for their own losses, including the loss of their loved one.
California lawmakers say they plan to hold public hearings and conduct on-site investigations into the Office of Protective Services. One lawmaker, Senator Carol Liu, stated that the reports issued by California Watch indicate that the police force’s “‘inability to handle complex investigations has resulted – literally – in people getting away with murder.’”
One advocate for the developmentally disabled said she hopes the hearings will create public pressure regarding the issue of patient deaths or suspicious injuries at state-run facilities.
While the numerous mistakes of OPS has led to grave consequences, the attorneys at the Walton Firm are glad to hear that steps are being made to scrutinize and address the flawed tactics. However, it is clear that OPS has a long way to go before its investigations will provide abuse victims and their families with the justice they deserve.
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(Photo courtesy of Alan Cleaver)