By Benjamin Weiser
It was five years ago in a Bronx group home for developmentally disabled adults that reports surfaced of workers physically abusing and neglecting residents. Some staff members hit and kicked them, gave them cold showers, spit in their faces and left some with black eyes and other bruises.
When the sister of one resident called the facility, a worker answered, “Good morning, Bronx Zoo,” a civil rights lawsuit alleged.
Now New York State has agreed to pay $6 million to settle that lawsuit, which had been brought on behalf of three residents, all profoundly disabled women, ages 39 to 52, who had been abused at the facility, according to settlement papers filed on Monday in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
In addition, the state spent almost as much defending the lawsuit, paying $5.7 million thus far to more than a dozen private law firms retained to represent the state employees named as defendants, according to the state comptroller’s office.
As part of the settlement, the State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities also agreed to take the extraordinary step of surrendering control of the facility to a private nonprofit agency that will oversee the residents’ care using its own employees — a provision the plaintiffs insisted upon, their lead lawyer, Ilann M. Maazel, said.
“We lost all faith that the agency can run this house effectively,” Mr. Maazel said. “The most important thing the families want is for their loved ones to be safe, and they had no confidence that the state would keep them safe.”
Jennifer O’Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, said the proper care and treatment of people supported by the agency “is our highest priority, and this resolution will help ensure these residents receive it.”
The facility, which is known as the Union Avenue I.R.A., includes three group homes housing up to two dozen disabled residents that are part of the network of more than 1,000 state-run group homes.
Laura Kearins, whose 50-year-old sister has lived at the facility since 1992, and who was one of the plaintiffs, said she hoped that the transfer of ownership would be done expeditiously.
“I pray that it’s a very quick change,” Ms. Kearins said, adding that she wanted all of the Union Avenue residents to “be able to live happy lives, lives that are not lived in fear of what’s going to happen to them next.”
The settlement comes in a case that not only exposed the mistreatment of the Union Avenue residents, but also revealed a culture in which employees who sought to report misconduct faced retaliation and intimidation.
For example, a whistle-blower offered detailed accounts of the abuse in a series of anonymous letters to a state official and several families in 2014. The letter writer, who described being afraid of retribution for reporting the abuse, was later identified as a group home employee.
A state investigation later substantiated allegations of misconduct by 13 workers.
But the state failed to fire any of the employees, The New York Times reported in June.
A state arbitration process shielded the workers who had been cited for abuse and neglect. They were typically sent to other jobs in the system.
Another provision of the deal seeks to bar the employees named in the lawsuit from having contact with any of the three plaintiffs.
The settlement document says the defendants have designated $1.5 million of the state’s settlement as fees for the plaintiffs’ law firm, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. But the document also makes it clear that ultimately the judge, Paul A. Engelmayer, and not the state, will decide the legal fees and approve the settlement.
The settlement funds are to be placed in special needs trusts for each plaintiff, the document says.
The lawsuit was scheduled for trial this fall, but at a hearing in April, Judge Engelmayer urged a lawyer for the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities to settle the case, given the “substantial consequences” in potential damages and demands for reform that the state could face if the plaintiffs proved their case.
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$6 Million for Disabled Adults Who Were Punched and Spat At