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Agency for disabled seeking to fire 200 for incidents of abuse

The state agency responsible for the care of 126,000 disabled New Yorkers is trying to fire nearly 200 employees as a result of "substantiated allegations of abuse," its commissioner said Wednesday.

Courtney Burke, head of the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, said the effort to change the culture for those caring for people with intellectual disabilities, autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities now includes requiring direct care staff to have high school diplomas and to pass psychological and drug tests. The agency also has a pilot program with video cameras in transport vehicles.

Burke, who took over the agency shortly after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office last year, said terminations "show we do not tolerate abuse in the workplace."

Agency spokesman Travis Proulx said that before the recent administrative overhaul of policies on handling abuse complaints, there were about 60 such cases, which may have been settled for a lesser penalty in arbitration. That policy changed in April 2011 to seeking termination, and now 98 percent of physical abuse allegations and all sex abuse allegations are reported to police, more than before, he said.

The 200 are state employees, who can be suspended immediately but have guaranteed arbitration. About 80 percent of the agency's care is provided by some 700 state-funded nonprofits. The private nonprofits can fire staff immediately, and the agency monitors them and can decertify those that don't handle abuse cases appropriately, Proulx said.

On Monday, Cuomo proposed creating a new investigating agency to better protect about a million New Yorkers with disabilities and special needs under state-funded care through the developmental disabilities office and five other state agencies and their contractors. Administration officials cited 10,000 alleged abuse reports last year and said Wednesday they will push to get the bill passed by the Senate and Assembly in the remaining two months of this legislative session.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said Wednesday that his chamber will vote on the bill next week. "We have a moral obligation to act swiftly and decisively," he said.

The bill would set one standard definition of abuse and neglect, and establish a new special prosecutor and inspector general with more than 400 staff to investigate allegations. It would establish a hot line, statewide incident database and a list of employees banned from working with the disabled because of abusive behavior. It would cost about $50 million a year to operate, including some staff and functions transferred from the six other agencies.

The agency has about 23,000 staff. Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association that represents state workers, said the agency remains understaffed, something he said was noted by a special adviser to Cuomo who examined problems with state care for the disabled.

"We don't want to see anybody abusing anyone. We also want to be sure when accusations are made they are substantiated and it will not simply be a witch hunt," Madarasz said. "The demands on staff are still beyond what's reasonable."

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