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Cuomo: Protect people with special needs

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, with from left, Assembly

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, with from left, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). (March 27, 2011) Credit: AP

With two weeks remaining in the legislative session, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is pushing the State Assembly to pass a bill that would increase safeguards for people with special needs.

Courtney Burke, commissioner of the State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, told a crowd at Nassau Community College Thursday that the legislation was vital to protect vulnerable New Yorkers against "neglect, abuse and other dangerous conduct."

The measure, which creates a new state agency, the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, passed the Senate last month.

The center would monitor people who receive care from six state agencies or licensed nonprofits. It would have a special prosecutor, inspector general and hotline to report abuse. The center would also maintain statewide databases tracking cases of abuse and neglect and a registry of abusive employees.

"We are having very productive discussions on the bill to address some of our concerns, such as the independence of the proposed entity, and we expect to come to an agreement soon," said Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), whose special needs son was once abused in a group facility, is concerned about consolidating too much prosecutorial authority within the executive branch. He also wants to ensure that records from the special prosecutor are made public and that the hotline is properly staffed. "I expect the bill to be signed into law but with some revisions," he said.

Last year, there were more than 10,000 allegations of abuse against New Yorkers with special needs and disabilities, Burke said. The bill would increase criminal penalties for abusers and make it illegal for workers at residential facilities to have sex with a patient.

"The people caring for our most vulnerable population must be held accountable on a consistent basis," said Saundra Gumerove, whose daughter Lauren has Sturge-Weber syndrome, a neurological and skin disorder, and was physically abused at a Suffolk facility 20 years ago.

The new legislation would protect more than a million New Yorkers in state-operated, certified or licensed facilities and programs. But, some Long Islanders would like to see the bill expanded to include home care professionals, family members who care for elderly or disabled relatives and sober homes -- unlicensed facilities that provide housing to recovering addicts.

"I support the bill but it could use some tweaking," said Roy Probeyahn of Manorville, who cares for three adult sons with autism.

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