Staffers at a state-run home for severely disabled adults referred to it as the "Bronx Zoo" while smashing residents' heads into walls, denying them food, and botching their medical care, three families alleged in a lawsuit filed last week—and now the Bronx District Attorney may investigate some of those claims of abuse. Lawyers for the families wrote to DA Darcel Clark earlier this week imploring her office to open a criminal investigation of staff at the Union Avenue IRA and noting that "too often in New York State, district attorneys in other counties have failed to investigate disability abuse, or have deferred to the [Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs], which itself has largely failed to pursue criminal action."
Six instances of abuse and neglect of Union Avenue IRA residents have already been substantiated by the Justice Center, attorneys said in their letters to the DA, which means that criminal charges of assault should be brought against at least three staffers: Lashonda Conner, Tiffany Teams, and Sharnell Tucker.
In July 2014, Tucker allegedly punched a woman identified as D.K., who has lived at the Union Avenue IRA since 1992 and is nonverbal. Tucker also pushed her, the lawsuit alleges, causing her to hit her head on a bathroom wall. It was a full week before D.K. received medical attention, according to the suit. Just a couple weeks later, Tucker allegedly pushed another woman identified as Z.O., who is has an intellectual functioning disability, impulse control disorder, and autism, and is also nonverbal. Z.O. received a black eye and had to be hospitalized, her attorneys allege.
D.K. was also subject to abuse by Teams, who allegedly pulled her hair and spit in her face at one point in 2014. And on September 1st, 2014, Conner allegedly kicked Z.O.'s legs repeatedly throughout the day, "to the point where they swelled up like balloons."
Those are just a few of the myriad abuse allegations made in the 46-page lawsuit, and they're not even all of the claims that have been substantiated: the attorneys' letter to the DA describes several other substantiated incidents in which the staff member involved was unidentified.
"Even by the standards of New York's notorious system of care for disabled people, this case stands out as one of the most repugnant," said David Lebowitz, one of the attorneys for the residents' families, when the suit was first filed. He added that "this is not a case of one or two bad apples, but an entrenched culture of cruelty tolerated by supervisors and State officials." Ilaan Maazel, the lead attorney on the case, called the repeated abuses "revolting, appalling, inhuman."
In August of 2014, a staff member at the Union Avenue IRA blew the whistle, writing a letter to the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities detailing the rampant abuse at the facility. But lawyers for the victims say that OPWDD didn't act until the whistleblower sent similar letters to the abuse victims' guardians, who immediately demanded an investigation. At that point, OPWDD put the staff members named in the letter on paid leave—and the staffers, in turn, allegedly hosted a "Happy Hour for the Accused," posting photos to social media of themselves enjoying their paid leave. It's not clear whether they still work for the state or with the disabled.
While the civil rights case makes it way through the court system, the families of the abused are hoping that they can achieve some modicum of justice through a criminal investigation. Maazel and Lebowitz asked the DA to open the investigation immediately, "given the seriousness and scope of these allegations, the potential ongoing danger to our clients and other residents at the facility and other State facilities in the Bronx, the likelihood that many (if not all) of the defendants still work for the State and even with disabled residents, and the potentially imminent expiration of the applicable statutes of limitations."
A spokesperson for the Bronx DA's office couldn't yet confirm whether Clark's office will be investigating the case, but said that "as it stands right now we are still in the process of studying the allegations and we take them very seriously."