Thursday, October 9, 2014

Group Home is House of Horrors?

Group Home is House of Horrors?
Staff Removed from Group Home After Claims of Abuse
(Still smiling despite a recent black eye, Zoraida has now made at least 10 visits to local emergency rooms since October.--Photo by David Greene)

By David Greene

BRONX, NEW YORK, OCTOBER 9- At least 16 employees, including managers and supervisors at a South Bronx home for mentally disabled adults have been told to stay home after allegations of widespread abuse have prompted an investigation.

Family members of the "consumers" of the Union IRA group home located at 570 Union Avenue at East 150 Street, had been complaining that relatives were being assaulted and deprived of food as well as other issues at the home.

During a meeting with family members on September 20, Sheryl Minter-Brooks, the State Operations Director for Region 5, who oversees such homes across the city, revealed that seven caregivers had been removed since the spring-- but a full-fledged investigation had not begun until an anonymous letter was received a week earlier.

At least five family members received a 2-page, typed letter dated August 20, detailing systematic beatings, food deprivation and a briefly mentioned allegation of sex abuse by a female employee and named all of the workers who either took part in the abuse or looked the other way.

The still-unknown author of the letter stated they would come forward and claimed to have photographs of staff members beating, kicking and pulling the hair of the people they were hired to protect and care for.

The letter claimed that one state employee who was accused of assaulting a first-floor resident, a young man who suffered a broken eardrum, was regularly allowed to visit and wander freely at the home. Family members say that the named individual has even visited the home since the big shake-up and even after the September 20 meeting.

The whistleblower wrote, "I reported every incident and was told not to listen to what I was taught in training class, because it would label me as a snitch and that I should keep my mouth shut."

A second hand-written letter was sent to each family with more details on the particular patient and the abuse he or she suffered.

One family also alleges food deprivation and charged that staff members refused to stock the bathroom with toilet paper, responding that the clients would stop up the drains.

With little information provided by the home or the state, family members are only left to wonder about one recent death reported at the home.

Even though she did not yet have guardianship, Barbara Melendez, 44, had been complaining about her sister Zoraida's swollen legs for years, but says she was brushed off by staff members because the courts had not yet granted her guardianship.

Melendez explained that without guardianship she was in a precarious position and felt intimidated by some staff members as to not cause trouble at the home. Melendez recalled, "They had all the power and I still needed my guardianship."

The anonymous letter claimed that one employee had been kicking Zoraida in the legs, causing the severe swelling.

But after Zoraida, 47, needed 7 stitches to close a busted lip she suffered on October 19, reported by staff as an accidental fall, followed by emergency room visits in October and December, 2013, did Melendez begin to suspect abuse.

"When I began to question it they would tell me, 'Oh she's accident prone,'" Melendez recalled, "So what could I say? They knew how to cover themselves."

Zoraida would be taken to local emergency rooms six more times between January and August, for injuries including a giant bruise on her arm, a gash to her foot that needed six stitches to close and a black eye reported August 15.

Despite the delay in reporting, Melendez is grateful to the letter writer who shed light on the going-on's at the home, as Melendez explained, "The employees made it seem like it was our imagination or we were being over-protective family members."

During the meeting at the State of New York Office of Mental Retardation And Developmental Disabilities on Zerega Avenue, Brooks told the upset and angry crowd, "We are as sickened by this as everyone else is and we're working to get to the bottom of it."

Brooks continued, "We have reason to suspect that something happened. It does not mean that it did happen," adding that the 16 employees would remain sidelined at home while still collecting their regular weekly salaries, as the investigation is conducted by the little-known Office of Internal Investigative Affairs (OIIA.)

Family members hope the investigation will lead to arrests and were insistent that the 16 employees not return to the home, even if they are cleared of all allegations, fearing reprisals. However, Brooks replied, "I can't guarantee that," citing the employees civil service contract.

One family member recalled an incident involving her brother, she told the group, "We had an independent investigation that took many months and it's finally completed, but were not allowed to get copies of the reports or know the results."

Melendez concluded, "The system failed us. The supervisors, the workers, even the school failed us. I pursued several different avenues for help and there was none." Claiming that the safeguards that were supposed to protect them are flawed, Melendez adds, "If they are found guilty they should never work with the disabled again."

"It's a little too late to be sorry," Melendez said of Brooks' apologies to family members. Meanwhile, Melendez and the other family members now rest their hopes on the recently created Justice Center who handles such complaints and the investigators who are currently looking into the allegations.

On Thursday, October 2, Zoraida was discovered with bruises in the area of her pelvis and her breast and was taken to Montefiore Hospital, where the NYPD was called. Officers took a report for an "unknown assault," but hospital officials told Melendez that there was a time-lapse in reporting, so a rape-kit was not performed.

After an overnight stay at the hospital's emergency room, Zoraida was eventually taken back to the home, but for a still-unexplained reason, Melendez claims that after getting back to the home a social worker from the hospital ordered officials at the home to return Zoraida to the hospital.

Having spent the better part of the second overnight inside Montefiore's ER, Zoraida was eventually allowed to go home, but only after Melendez, who now has guardianship over Zoraida-- had demanded it."

At the submission of this article, sources say a 17th employee, the on-site nurse at the Union IRA home has now been removed. The sources maintain that the new nurse is just returning to work after being cleared of any wrongdoing in an unrelated case.  

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