Families’ Suit Alleges Staff Abused Disabled, Called Group Home “Bonx Zoo”

ALBANY, N.Y. — Three families have sued staff at a New York City group home, alleging they punched, kicked and spit on disabled residents and that state authorities knew about the abuse and did nothing for weeks.

Staff at the Union Avenue IRA referred to the facility as the “Bronx zoo” and also denied residents food and botched their medical care, the federal lawsuit said. The suit, filed in Manhattan, seeks unspecified damages. It names as defendants six staff members, additional unnamed staff and supervisors at the residence, and eight supervisors and officials at the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

“This case represents a complete breakdown in hiring, training, investigation, discipline, and oversight,” attorney Ilann Maazel said. “We call on Governor Cuomo and the Bronx district attorney to get justice for these families, and to make sure no disabled person is abused in a New York State group home ever again.”

The state office said it referred complaints about the facility to the Justice Center in 2014, put accused staff on administrative leave, is taking disciplinary action against those responsible and is taking steps to ensure proper oversight and retraining, spokeswoman Jennifer O’Sullivan said Monday. “Any abuse of the individuals in our care is completely unacceptable.”

The lawsuit said evidence of frequent abuse, including bruising, family complaints and a resident who got a sexually transmitted disease, goes back a decade. It said the state office received an August 2014 staff whistleblower letter specifying incidents and abusers but didn’t respond for weeks.

Following a second letter from the whistleblower that also went to families, the state Justice Center investigated and confirmed “staggering and sustained abuse,” as well as medical neglect and falsified documents, the lawsuit said. That included findings that residents sustained black eyes and bruises and in some instances had been punched in the face, kicked, shoved against walls and that one disabled woman had her hair pulled by a staff member who also spat in her face.
The three disabled individuals and their guardians who sued are identified in court papers only by their initials. The three, all women, ages 47, 48 and 35, still reside at Union Avenue IRA. All have severe intellectual disabilities and are non-verbal.

Norwood News, a biweekly Bronx newspaper, reported in October 2014 that a 17th staff member had been put on paid leave from the Union Avenue IRA and that angry families were told that seven caregivers had been removed since that spring.
The Justice Center didn’t immediately reply Monday to queries about whether any staff member at the residence was criminally charged or prosecuted.

Patrice O’Shaugnhessy, spokeswoman for Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, said the prosecutor’s office is studying the allegations and take them seriously.

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