Zachary Garrison and four other residents at the West Sparta IRA in Dansville were moved without prior written notice or explanation on Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t until the next day that Zachary’s father received a phone call to inform him that all his son’s belongings were moved to the nearby Derby Intermediate Care facility.
Zachary is developmentally disabled. The move saw him unexpectedly transferred to different living quarters as the state struggles with what is says is an employee shortage.
The situation has left affected families angry and worried as they grapple with the sudden turnabout, while decrying what they describe as an intentional winnowing of the state’s group homes.
Torie Garrison, Zachary’s mother, said they were first alerted to a potential move on Oct. 25. At the time it wasn’t a definite thing — simply a possibility — that Zachary’s group home might close temporarily.
“When they said that, obviously, I said I didn’t want him moved,” she said. “Nothing was said. Nobody knew anything.”
Then the day before Thanksgiving she received a phone call informing her they were moving everybody in the house to the Dogwood Day Treatment Center, also in Dansville, where they would be staying on cots.
The Garrisons told the West Sparta IRA that Zachary would not be moved. Gov. Kathy Hochul also got wind of the plan and shut it down.
In the meantime Zachary left for Thanksgiving break with his father, which is when his belongings were moved.
“They did it illegally,” Torie said. “Not only did they violate his civil Constitutional and human rights, but they violated the eviction laws that they put in place to protect you, me and my son. Every one of those residents should have received a written notice ... They need to go to court and have a legal eviction.”
Torie said officials even kept it from their staff members until the morning when they instructed everyone to move people’s belongings.
Although Zachary was only moved 15 minutes away, Torie pointed out the state could have moved him anywhere without her knowledge.
“Calls have been made by several people including Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes ... and those calls have gone unanswered with no return calls,” she wrote in a message to the Livingston County News Facebook page.
Torie said if anyone had notice, they could have made other arrangements and Zachary was put in a home which wasn’t in his best interest. She explained Zachary is a runner; when he gets upset, he runs. In the group home they moved him to, he’s within the town and there are no fences.
When The Daily News talked to Torie two weeks ago, Zachary was unaware his belongings had been moved.
“Just the apprehension and anxiety, hearing all the staff talking about it put him into orbit,” Torie said. “He ended up having two mental health arrests and going to Strong Hospital, which he’s never had in his life. I don’t know what they think is going to happen when he thinks he’s coming back to (West Sparta IRA), and he’s really going somewhere he’s never been in his life. All around these strange people that he doesn’t know.”
Zachary has had to sustain mental and emotional damage Torie said she can’t fix and will never go away.
The closing of group homes due to lack of staff isn’t a shock to those who have been working in the industry for the past decade. While wages in the 1980s and 1990s were double the minimum wage, these days Department of Public Safety (DPS) workers can make more money working in fast food restaurants.
Randi DiAntonio, who worked for Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) for 25 years as a social worker, said she has never in her career seen circumstances like this. She said it began when Gov. Andrew Cuomo started the transformation agenda back in 2012.
“He closed almost all of the state-operated ISF — which are intermediate care facilities,” she said. “Then he really started shifting the system to a managed cared model. It really changed the dynamics of how the agency delivers services.”
Between 2009 and 2019 the state closed over 3,000 group home beds.
But what’s concerning, DiAntonio said, is they had to use the Freedom of Information Act for the number of beds which have been closed; the state said they have stopped tracking it and don’t keep track of their waiting list anymore.
DiAntonio said OPWDD hasn’t been willing to be transparent with that information, so a lot of what they know about the closures is learned as they happen, anecdotally through the union members and when parents found out.
The state reduced the OPWDD workforce by about 15 percent from 2009 to 2020. The direct care staff have been working double, triple and even quadruple shifts during COVID. DiAntonio said nobody can really come to work and not know when they’re coming home.
“The union believes if they worked with us and worked with our nurses and our staff who know the individuals best, we could have come up with a much better plan,” DiAntonio said. “Unfortunately we found about it the day before. So many of these closures that happened (Thanksgiving) week were ‘consolidations,’ is what they’re calling them.”
Leisa Abraham, a psychologist who worked for OPWDD on and off for 30 years, works in group homes. She said starting in 2019 they were notified by the agency of a temporary suspension of services in one of their group homes in Seneca County. Finger Lakes DDSO spans over 10 counties and up until the closures, had 150 group homes.
“We’ve been a thriving part of our communities, and certainly been providing services in group homes for our people,” she said.
When the first group home closed in 2019, they were told it was due to the condition of the home. Some maintenance repairs needed to be done.
However, since 2020, a total of 20 group homes have been closed. The vast majority have been in 2021. The reason for the closure have changed from the condition of the home to staffing.
“Our staffing issues quite frankly predate COVID,” Abraham said. “For years they have been holding our budget hostage where they wouldn’t allow it to grow over 2 percent.”
To stop the deterioration of the group homes, she said staffing is a real problem. They’ve asked the OPWDD what the recruitment is — they used to have a presence in job fairs and community colleges. They want assurance that when the staffing improves the group homes which closed will re-open.
Abraham said the loss of beds is a real loss to the community. Their wait list years ago was at 13,000 people, and Abraham doubts it shrunk.
Dr. David Breen is a pediatrician in Livingston County who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of children with disabilities. He worked for the OPWDD at Finger Lakes DDSO for 15 years.
“As young parents who have been raising developmentally disabled children become old, they can’t manage them anymore,” he said. “For that reason we need to be building new group homes.”
The moving of people have been absolutely traumatic for those affected, Abraham said. A lot of the group homes have been formed in the 1980s and 1990s, and a lot of the residents have lived in them for decades.
“So it would be like you or I moving out of our house of 20 years,” she said. “With these particular moves, there has been very little input from anybody for the need or where people are going, including the individuals who are moving or their families.”
New York State is obligated to take care of people; they are the agency of last resort.
“We don’t get to say no to people,” DiAntonio said. “Voluntary agencies do a great job, but they also get to say you’re too difficult to serve. We can’t provide for you because we don’t have the right supports. The state has a Constitutional obligation; they’re the safety net. When we cut state services, which we have for a decade, that’s really a significant constituency issue. People in communities won’t get what they need.”
She said it’s not just OPWDD; it’s the Office for Mental Health which closed about 6,000 in-patient psychiatric beds since 2009 in the state. There are people who are getting hurt or hurting others, she said, and they are on the streets when they shouldn’t be.
And it is all around Cuomo having a 2 percent cap on all state agencies for the past decade, she said.
HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF
From 1947 to 1987, Willowbrook State School was a state-supported institution for children with intellectual disabilities in Staten Island.
However, it became notorious as it was found out the people inside were beaten, left unattended, naked or in rags.
Willowbrook was overcapacity, with overstressed and underfunded staff. By 1969, Willowbrook, designed with a capacity for 4,000 patients, reached its peak of 6,200.
While Robert Kennedy first spoke of it, saying Willowbrook had “a situation that borders on a snake pit,” it wasn’t until journalists Jane Kurtin and Geraldo Rivera covered the story that alarm bells started ringing.
“It resulted in the closure of these major developmental institutions around the country,” Breen said. “Then we started what is now the group homes system.
“Group homes are an excellent place for people to live,” he said. “They have shifts of state employees from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. They eat high quality food. They go to a doctor in the community and have very good medical care. They go to day treatment programs for physical, occupational and speech therapy.”
Breen said the problem is now group homes are being shuttered and closed, and the “supposed” cause of that is there is no money to hire nurses.
He said the United States has been a leader in the world for the care of people with severe disabilities. New York State has been a leader in the country.
However, for the last five years the word from Cuomo was the money which came out of the Medicaid budget is under tighter scrutiny; that there just isn’t any money.
“The fact is Gov. Cuomo made a judgement that there is money for some things like a bridge in New York City named after his father for a million dollars and other projects, but there isn’t any money for the developmentally disabled, their families or the professionals who take care of them,” Breen said.
He said his opinion is Gov. Cuomo didn’t like anything to do with developmentally disabled people because the DPS workers are unionized, and Cuomo hated that.
“Like the developmental agencies which were huge with thousands of individuals living in poor conditions like in Willowbrook in the 1970s, we are now reproducing a situation similar to that,” he said.
Breen said with Hochul being the governor now, as well as a new OPWDD commissioner, he hopes there will be improvement in the situation.
The Daily News reached out to the OPWDD regarding the closures.
Jennifer O’Sullivan, director of communications for the OPWDD, said the agency gives families as much notice as possible prior to completing any move and the needs of each person are a major part of the planning for any move. People have been able to remain close to their original homes with staff who are familiar to them.
“OPWDD and our provider agencies, as well as most human services organizations across the country, are facing a workforce shortage of crisis proportions. The Hochul Administration is working on multiple strategies to confront this crisis and improve the staffing situation, one of which was announced recently in the $1.5 billion workforce incentive package,” O’Sullivan said in a statement sent to The Batavia Daily News. “In order to manage a large footprint of group homes that support tens of thousands of people across the state, OPWDD has been exploring a variety of options, including temporary consolidation of certain group homes, to maintain quality care and workplace conditions. While these are temporary consolidations, they will remain in place until such time that we can achieve safe and appropriate staffing levels.”
No homes have been temporarily suspended in Wyoming County. Five homes were recently temporarily suspended in Livingston County: Lima, Autumn Lane, Dansville, West Sparta, Witter.
Since 2009, the group homes in the following counties have been temporarily suspended:
Genesee County: Clinton Park (2021)
Livingston County: Conesus (2019), Lima (2021), Autumn Lane (2021), Dansville (2021), West Sparta (2021), Witter (2021)