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Lawmakers hear testimony on abuse of people with disabilities

FILE - This Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, file photo shows Hacienda HealthCare in Phoenix. State regulators reportedly wanted to remove developmentally disabled patients from a Phoenix long-term care facility years before a woman in a vegetative state gave birth. The Arizona Republic reported Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, that Hacienda HealthCare faced a criminal investigation in 2016. The facility allegedly billed the state some $4 million in bogus 2014 charges for wages, transportation, housekeeping, maintenance and supplies. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Hacienda Healthcare (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

In the wake of horror at Hacienda HealthCare, there is no shortage of ideas for how to prevent abuse in the disability community. But what action can and will actually be taken at the state Legislature this year is not yet clear.

What is clear is that lawmakers are paying attention.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council hosted a public meeting at the historic Capitol building on Jan. 23 to explore potential solutions offered by people with disabilities and advocates. Dozens of people came simply to listen, including House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, and representatives for Arizona’s congressional delegation.

State Reps. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, and Athena Salman, D-Tempe, also participated.

Fernandez said the recent case of an incapacitated woman giving birth after being raped represented “failure at every level.” And while she and Bowers commended Phoenix police for the arrest of Nathan Sutherland for the assault earlier in the day, they acknowledged that was just one win in a long fight – and no one knows how many others like Sutherland have escaped judgement.

“This is all too common, and it needs to be addressed,” Bowers told the crowd. “We want to do all we can so this doesn’t happen again.”

Members of his party have already proposed some solutions, from video monitoring to eliminating a decades-old state law that allowed centers like Hacienda to operate without a state license.

But yesterday’s public meeting demonstrated how those early proposals are just the beginning of a much deeper conversation that comes too late for so many victims.

Christina Corieri, Ducey’s senior policy analyst, said the administration is looking for a two-track approach: to deal with the specific vendor and facility, Hacienda, and to prevent such a case from happening again, whether through regulation or legislation.

She called the rape of a 29-year-old Hacienda patient, which was only discovered when the woman gave birth on Dec. 29, a “monstrous and unspeakable crime.” But if ever there was a non-partisan issue in need of a solution, she said this is it.

Members of the public offered a wide range of ideas, from a requirement that Adult Protective Services investigate every report of abuse to strengthening criminal penalties on individuals offenders and facilities.

Asim Dietrich, a staff attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law, started with staff at centers for people with disabilities. Like numerous others, he called for improved training on sexuality and recognizing signs of abuse.

But he also said that while staff at these facilities are required to provide their fingerprints for background checks, they are only renewed every six years. Dietrich recommended annual background checks to close that gap.

And he argued for another fix at a more personal level: that people with disabilities should be believed when they report abuse.

Melissa Van Hook, vice chair of the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, called it the elephant in the room. She said nothing is protecting people in care facilities from abuse, and everyone who has the power to do something in the justice system needs guidance.

She told the story of a young boy with autism she worked with seven years ago. He told his family when he was sexually assaulted, but despite his ability to clearly communicate what had happened to him, Van Hook said the police doubted his credibility because of his autism.

Van Hook had to help his family fight for the case to be sent to a prosecutor and for the case to go to yet another prosecutor when the first expressed concern for the perpetrator rather than the victim.

The second prosecutor still told the boy’s family that his autism would be a challenge to the case, but she at least believed they could get a conviction, Van Hook said.

Finally, the judge continued the cycle, struggling to understand the child and his autism, too.

Yet he was one of the lucky few who got results – the case resulted in the felony conviction of his attacker.

Van Hook said that were it not for the attorney’s determination to understand her client’s disability, the family would never have seen justice in that case.

“It took tremendous courage for this boy to speak up about his assault,” she said, adding he was afraid that no one would believe him – a fear that was validated by his experience. “In this country, we are all entitled to fair and equitable treatment in the justice system. It’s time to stop treating people with disabilities as though they are invisible and somehow less than.”

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