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Tupper Lake family pushes for special needs reform

May 19, 2012
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

TUPPER LAKE - A local family is speaking out as part of a push to reform care for people with special needs in New York.

Tupper Lakers David and Joanne Dechene appeared in a video talking about their son, David Jr., and troubles he encountered with two employees of Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office. He has been in state care for the last 30 years.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is using the video as one of three to advocate for legislation he proposed recently to establish a Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, which he says would establish stronger standards and practices for protecting people with disabilities and special needs.

In the video, David Dechene tells the story of one caretaker his son had at a group home who would hit him on the top of the head with a heavy ring, then kick him in the shin when he recoiled.

Once that was reported, the employee was moved to another state facility rather than being let go.

"That was definitely a terrible, terrible thing, to have that fellow stay with the state," David Dechene said in the video.

After that, the Dechenes moved their son to a smaller group home when an opening became available. He fell in the shower one day, was knocked unconscious and had to be taken to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. After that, he wasn't supposed to be left alone, but three weeks later, David Dechene went to visit him and found him alone, naked in the bathroom. The caregiver was in another room talking on the phone and didn't even notice the father's entrance.

Dechene tried to talk about the incident at a group meeting in Saranac Lake, but he was told to leave the room "because I wasn't supposed to bring that up there."

After that, the employee was moved to another location in the same capacity.

Dechene said in the video that Sunmount employees often don't report incidents when they should.

"The people that worked with these people would not turn them in because they were afraid of their jobs," Dechene said in the video. "If a person turns another person in, they were shunned by everybody."

He tells the story of one woman who told him about what happened after she reported an incident: When she entered the break room the next day, all the other employees moved to the other side of the room.

"They're afraid, so they don't do it, so they've got to get some teeth into this program, so hopefully this is going to work," Dechene said.

Dechene and his wife volunteer at Sunmount, giving classes to new employees. As part of that, they ask employees to put themselves in the shoes of family members of people with special needs. That's how they caught the attention of the head of the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and were invited to Albany to be filmed giving a speech.

When reached for comment, Dechene said that overall in the 30 years his son has been in state care, the employees who have worked with him have been a 9.9 on a scale of 1 to 10. He also stressed that while both of the employees his son had problems with were transferred to other facilities after they were reported, neither works for the state now.

"I don't want people to think that my son is being abused now," Dechene said. "This is past.

"It happened and hopefully it won't happen to anybody else, and hopefully people won't take it as picking on anybody. I wasn't picking on anybody."

Cuomo is touting support for his legislation from more than 100 advocacy groups and numerous editorial boards at newspapers across the state. But some, including a whistleblower at Sunmount, have questioned whether it would have enough teeth to create real reform.

The whistleblowers, who say they lost or quit jobs after reporting staff abuses, told The Associated Press that telling higher-ups often meant complaints went nowhere and they themselves were investigated or transferred. They said Cuomo should get rid of an entire layer of administrators in the system who were responsible.

Susan McLaughlin, who was a consumer advocate for the former state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, recalled a disabled client at the Sunmount facility in the Adirondacks who in 2004 had his fingernails cut so short that all his fingers bled. She wrote top agency officials in 2005, attempting to report 15 specific cases of illness, injury or death of disabled people in state care and what she described then as "systemic problems." She later sued after she was terminated following 35 years with the state.

"They should take the top third of the administration right off the top," McLaughlin said, adding she got many anonymous calls from direct-care staff who feared losing their jobs, so she would report it. "And you need to bring in new people with a different philosophy."



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