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Audit finds California developmental centers botched abuse investigations

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2013 - 4:06 am

California has dropped the ball in protecting vulnerable residents with severe disabilities and investigating alleged abuse in state facilities charged with their care, a blistering state audit has found.

State Auditor Elaine Howle found numerous staffing, leadership and operational deficiencies in state developmental centers, including failure to respond quickly and properly to some abuse complaints.

"Investigative deficiencies, such as those we observed, may allow for continued abuse at the developmental centers," the audit said.

In one abuse investigation, officers did not file written declarations from two staff members accused of committing the offense, auditors said.

In two other cases, officers "did not obtain specialized medical examinations for alleged victims of sexual assault, even though it appeared that examinations were warranted."

Reviewing case files for 48 abuse complaints at three developmental centers, auditors found 54 procedural deficiencies in investigations.

The state operates four developmental centers – in Costa Mesa, Pomona, Sonoma County and Tulare County – that house, treat, train and care for 1,600 Californians with severe disabilities.

In one case at Sonoma Developmental Center, a female staff member observed a male staff member committing a lewd act, sparking an investigation in which dozens of people were interviewed – but not the resident who was victimized, the audit said.

The state's four facilities are overseen by the state departments of public health and developmental services. Neither contested the audit's findings Tuesday, and both noted that many of its recommendations for improvement have been implemented or are under way.

In a written response to the audit, the Department of Developmental Services said it "recognizes that despite significant progress to date, more can be done to improve the safety of individuals residing at the facilities."

Greg deGiere, public policy director of the Arc and United Cerebral Palsy California Collaboration, called the audit a "scathing, devastating indictment of the state's mismanagement of developmental residents' safety."

Auditors said that allegations of abuse were not always reported quickly to law enforcement staff, which in turn "did not consistently follow established procedures for investigation."

Officers "often failed to collect written declarations from suspects and witnesses, take photographs of crime scenes or alleged victims, and attempt to interview alleged victims, particularly residents said to be nonverbal," auditors concluded.

The Department of Public Health, in a written statement Tuesday, said it "welcomes all opportunity to improve its operations in the protection of the most vulnerable population in California."

Developmental Services cited numerous steps it has taken recently to bolster training, incident reporting and procedures of its Office of Protective Services, which handles law enforcement in developmental centers.

As an "immediate step to improve resident protection," the California Highway Patrol will help to manage law enforcement personnel within the centers and implement the audit's recommendations for improvement, Developmental Services said Tuesday.

Call Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @jwsanders55.

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