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Social Services: Beyond intent

Published 10:00 pm, Saturday, November 26, 2005
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There's much more protecting to be done in the state's Community Protection Program. Developmentally disabled clients, workers who care for them and the public face serious risks from the program.

The state's intent is excellent. The Department of Social and Health Services contracts for intensive supervision of developmentally disabled clients whose behavior poses a risk to the community, especially sex-related offenses. Care in the community avoids impersonal institutions.

As Post-Intelligencer investigative reporter Ruth Teichroeb found, however, the program is riddled with problems. Without fundamental changes, disaster threatens at any minute.

A child might be brutally assaulted by someone who has signed out of the voluntary program. One of the underpaid workers could fall victim to abusive program participants with the minds of children and powerful adult bodies. A harmless client could die at the hands of a more brutal housemate.

Plenty has already gone wrong. Teichroeb's P-I series, "Public Protection, Private Abuse," showed that clients die in care and are not given autopsies. Some disabled people who pose no community threat are placed in the program, only to be molested by predatory housemates or caregivers. Workers suffer repeated cuts, bruises and back injuries.

And those are just the more dramatic problems in the care of people whose mental challenges cut them off from society despite their often kind hearts and loving families. Some of the basic problems include a surprising lack of legal and policy guidelines for the program and poor monitoring of large sums of public money.

Federal Medicaid authorities have begun to review the P-I's findings, with an eye to improving a program for which they provide half the financing. Advocates for the developmentally disabled and members of the public have roles to play in demanding changes. Somewhere, for instance, there must be a non-profit firm that could make a significant contribution in a field now dominated by profit-making enterprises.

The key responsibilities, however, fall on the state DSHS and the Legislature.

The Legislature should:

  • Require out-of-state criminal background checks for all caregivers.

  • Establish legal means to commit clients against their will, and allow appeals.

  • Put an ombudsman in charge of monitoring disabled clients' treatment.

  • Look for ways to pay more money to workers rather than to the profits of the usually private contractors.

  • Give DSHS clear disciplinary authority.

    At DSHS, top priorities include:

  • Improved financial oversight.

  • Better monitoring of all aspects of the program, including care of the vulnerable clients.

  • An alternative to jail for safe, temporary confinement of out-of-control clients.

    The program's intentions, the efforts and accomplishments are often good, even noble. Caregivers, DSHS and society can be proud of a program that tries to respect the dangerous but vulnerable and valuable individuals as parts of society. But good ideas need to be translated into a much-stronger system of protection for all.

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