Unexplained Deaths at New York Homes for Disabled Rarely Investigated

In the past decade, more than 1,200 developmentally disabled adults have died of unnatural or unknown causes while in the care of New York State, all of them living at state and privately run <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/practice_areas/nursing_home_negligence">group homes. According to a report published over the weekend by The New York Times, despite this appallingly high number, the state has done little to investigate the process of care at these institutions.

Put another way, 1 in 6 deaths among residents of New York state group homes has involved an unknown or unnatural cause. In comparison, the figure hovers around 1 in 25 in Connecticut and Massachusetts, according to the Times. The Times investigation also found a disturbing pattern with some deaths: “Some residents who were not supposed to be left alone with food choked in bathrooms and kitchens. Others who needed help on stairs tumbled alone to their deaths. Still others ran away again and again until they were found dead.”

Shockingly, New York does not collect statistics on specific causes of death, and rarely investigates. Even if a medical examiner identifies a cause of death, the state continues to designate fatalities as “unknown.” As a result, the same types of deaths from preventable accidents and errors occur again and again.

The New York Times used a Freedom of Information request to the State Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities to obtain on more than 7,000 deaths that have occurred among developmentally disabled in state care. The data revealed only the broad “manner” in which people died — by homicide or suicide, accidents or natural causes. The largest category of deaths after natural causes was unknown, accounting for 10 percent of all deaths. The average age of those who died of unknown causes was 40, while the average age of residents dying of natural causes was 54, the Times said.

Of 222 cases of death not attributed to natural causes that New York State did bother to investigate, half raised concerns about quality of care. For the most part, these rare investigations rarely resulted in system-wide changes – like alerts to home operators – aimed at preventing reoccurrences. At homes run by private organizations, low-level employees were sometimes disciplined or fired, but executives rarely faced repercussions. Unions that contest disciplinary action against employees prevent even that action at many state-run homes.

According to the Times, New York State relies on operators of the homes to investigate and determine causes of death, and most often accepts that determination. The state also lacks a uniform training protocol for the nearly 100,000 workers at thousands of state and privately run homes and institutions.

This isn’t the first time a New York Times investigation has highlighted problems at New York group homes. Last year, the commissioners of the two agencies that oversee the developmentally disabled were forced to resign after a Times investigation reported on group home workers who were beating and abusing residents. Their replacements have promised change, and acknowledged problems with how the state tracks and seeks to prevent untimely deaths.

“One of the things I’m seeking to do,” Courtney Burke, the commissioner of the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, said “is having better data on those deaths.”

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