ALBANY — New York's agency tasked with investigating accusations of abuse and neglect against disabled people in state care is promising to improve transparency following years of complaints about conducting nearly all of its work in secret.
Denise Miranda took over last year as executive director of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.
"I'm very confident that if you go out there and ask folks about the Justice Center they will say that things are different this year than what they've seen before — more transparency, more communication and willingness to have dialogue," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I firmly believe that we have an obligation ... to engage with the public and to answer difficult questions."
The commitment isn't likely to satisfy critics, including some lawmakers and families of disabled people, who want the Justice Center to be abolished or overhauled. They fault the agency for not doing enough to go after abuse and neglect and for keeping information about cases from the public, state auditors and sometimes even the victims' families.
"There's no justice for the families," said Judy Merkley of Glens Falls, whose 34-year-old son Christopher Blair died at a state-run facility for the disabled in April.
Blair, who had developmental disabilities but no known health problems, had called his mother to say he was having breathing difficulties. She immediately called her son's caregivers but it's unclear when they responded. He was found dead in his room the next day.
"We're not getting answers about what happened," Merkley said.
The Justice Center was created five years ago by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo following a series in the New York Times that exposed widespread lapses in reporting and investigating the mistreatment of the disabled. The agency oversees investigations into the treatment of some 1 million New Yorkers now receiving care from the state or from private providers.
According to new statistics, the Justice Center has investigated 46,000 allegations and substantiated 16,000 cases of abuse or neglect since 2013. Some 550 people have been arrested because of allegations made to the agency, and another 440 have been barred from ever working with the disabled again in New York state.
Michael Carey emerged as a leading critic of the state's treatment of the disabled after his autistic son Jonathan was killed by a state employee in 2007. He accuses the Justice Center of manipulating the numbers to make it appear they are more aggressive than they are. He said taxpayers and the relatives of disabled New Yorkers often are left in the dark about conditions at state-regulated facilities.
"It's a complete black hole," he said.
The Justice Center insists it investigates every allegation and responds as aggressively as possible. Miranda said her agency is circumspect because it must protect the privacy of residents, the rights of employees and the integrity of law enforcement investigations. She noted that no other state had an agency similar to the Justice Center when New York created it, and that tweaks were bound to be required.
"You're talking about building the plane and flying it at the same time. There was no template," she said. "We've had to fine-tune along the way."
She points to the creation of a new sex crimes investigation unit as one example of how the agency continues to improve its operations.
Yet questions about the agency's performance aren't likely to go away.
Last year, the Justice Center refused to hand over thousands of records to state auditors, claiming that releasing the documents would violate state and federal privacy rules. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, called the decision to balk at a routine audit request "troubling."
"If they're doing their job ... it would be in their best interests to have an independent verification of the work," he said.
An AP review of the Justice Center in 2016 found that it investigated only six of the nearly 1,400 cases of developmentally disabled people who died in state care from June 30, 2013, to May 31, 2015.
Last year, the AP obtained a confidential investigative report on the case of a 41-year-old brain damaged man whose breathing tube was infested with maggots in a state group home. The Justice Center determined neglect had occurred, but no employees were disciplined or fired because investigators say they couldn't identify the people responsible.
The case prompted lawmakers to call for internal investigations and propose legislation to require facilities to publish a report card on conditions and the treatment of residents.