Seeing the Justice Center from the inside looking out
By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF members at the state Justice Center for People with Special Needs work very hard to protect those individuals from neglect and abuse. But the center is a “watchdog” and, instead of being viewed as heroes, they are often viewed by those they are watching as a threat, and that can be painful and destructive.
“It’s tough to be doing your best to be the good guys, and find yourself constantly criticized and mistrusted,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “As the union representing them and all other professional, scientific and technical unit employees of New York state, PEF knows we are all stronger and wiser when we take the time to see things from each other’s viewpoints as well as our own.”
So, how does the Justice Center look from the inside? What do the members who work there see and feel about the jobs they do?
“The work I do makes me feel like I’m earning a living by making the world a better place for all people,” said Meghan Keegan, who is a quality care facility review specialist 1 at the center. She also is council leader of PEF Division 232 that represents the approximately 226 PEF members at the Justice Center, the state Office for Victim Services and the state Board of Elections.
The mission of the Justice Center is to support and protect “the health, safety and dignity of all people with special needs and disabilities through advocacy of their civil rights, prevention of mistreatment, and investigation of all allegations of abuse and neglect so that appropriate actions are taken.” And the center’s stated “guiding principles” include a belief that “all people with special needs deserve to be treated with respect” and their “rights should be protected.” The center is also committed to ensuring they receive high quality care, and to holding both itself and the agencies that serve people with special needs accountable for maintaining high standards.
The center’s statement of values also cites the belief that “outreach, training and the promotion of best practices are critical to effect systems change. Collaboration is also a stated value; saying, “Safeguarding people with special needs is a shared responsibility.”
Contrary to common belief, “We don’t just do investigations,” Keegan said.
The Justice Center’s services extend beyond investigating allegations of wrongdoing, determining if they are founded and participating in the prosecution of those it believes are responsible. Many of the allegations come into the center through its call center that operates all day, every day, year-round. The Justice Center also studies the information gathered by its investigations to develop, and promote insights and best practices that caregivers and institutions can use to avoid potentially risky situations.
The call center may be reached at 855-373-2122. Best practices and self-assessment tools may be accessed online from http://www.justicecenter.ny.gov/spotlight-prevention/home.
The Justice Center has both a cross-agency work group on the prevention of abuse and neglect, and an advisory council. In addition, the center’s Surrogate Decision-Making Committee deals with questions and decisions regarding medical and end-of-life care for individuals who need help with these issues.
In the trenches
In her job, Keegan typically carries a civil and criminal caseload of 10-15 cases that add up to about 50 resolved cases annually. She travels, usually with a teammate, to facilities that serve people with special needs to investigate reports of poor treatment. They collect evidence, conduct interviews, compile the information into a report and recommend findings specific to the allegations.
“I’ve been trained in forensic interviewing,” Keegan said, “forensic interviewing with special needs populations, criminal evidence collection, the laws around obtaining statements in a criminal matter, and the regulations for each state oversight agency (SOA). I’ve also been trained in most restraint practices used across the SOAs. I refer additional concerns about facilities to our prevention and quality initiatives department for corrective action (systemic concerns, safe staffing and safe patient handling concerns, failures to meet basic regulatory standards, recommendations to improve practice to best standards, and violations of policy or procedure that are beyond the scope of the case). And on occasion I make referrals to the Office for Professions, the Medicaid Inspector General’s Office, the Inspector General’s Office, and the Department of Health. I coordinate with local law enforcement and state police and provide assistance when necessary if they are the lead on a criminal case. My work also requires that I testify in court both at administrative hearings and criminal court.”
That’s a heavy load of responsibility, but Keegan said she finds the work satisfying because she is looking out for the people in our society who are “the most likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, but also are the least likely to be believed when they make a report.”
“As a society, we are having broad discussions about bringing balance to our system of justice for those who have historically been left out, and I believe that our work here at the Justice Center is moving New York forward toward that goal,” Keegan said.
That said, the challenge of finding and documenting the truth behind allegations is a steep climb.
“This is heavy work and it is emotionally draining,” Keegan said. “Being able to stay professional and neutral while facing the myriad of frustrations thrown at you every day, from traveling hours for an interview that doesn’t show up, to having agency administrators question why they have to follow basic regulatory practice, to listening to someone divulge that something awful happened, is always a challenge.”
Working for change
The goal? Reveal the problems, develop best practices and prevent those awful things from ever happening again.
“I think most staff here at the Justice Center share this vision where there is no longer a need for an agency like the Justice Center,” Keegan said. They hope for a time “where we commit as a society to provide the resources agencies need to create safe environments for the individuals who need care and services and where we commit to paying our direct-care staff a living wage so they are only working one full-time job. That alone would significantly reduce the number of abuse and neglect cases referred to us each year.”
Keegan acknowledged that it’s likely “there will always be a few individuals who prey upon vulnerable populations and who shouldn’t be working in this field. But I think with the right training and protocols for law enforcement, funding for prosecution of these cases, and a significant reduction in the volume of cases we could eventually move away from needing an agency like the Justice Center.”
Indeed, Keegan recalls well the time before the Justice Center was created. She worked for the NYS Commission on Quality of Care as an institutional child abuse investigator. That body was charged with investigating and studying quality of care issues, but had no authority to prosecute or force change. After the death of a boy with developmental disabilities at a state institution, the Legislature and the governor enacted legislation that replaced the commission with the Justice Center in hopes it could be more aggressive in ending poor care and promoting quality care.
She chose this work, Keegan said, because she grew up in a household focused on it. Her parents, a nurse and a social worker, built their careers around helping people with special needs. And she has a close family member with multiple disabilities. “I’ve been immersed in this field my whole life and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Keegan said.
The union matters
Employees at the Justice Center have the same need their counterparts at other agencies have to organize and address common workplace issues and working conditions through union representation.
And like workers everywhere, it starts with a union contract.
“I think the most important thing that a union provides for employees is a fair contract that guarantees fair benefits and pay, as well as protections from wrongful termination,” Keegan said. “As a government employee, I think our public-employee unions also provide protection to hard-working people from changes in political power that might otherwise affect employment. It also guarantees equal pay for equal work, which is something we don’t often talk about in the labor movement.”
Division 232 Assistant Council Leader Kate Richardson said she began her career in the private sector working with Bell Atlantic in Vermont and came to appreciate her “excellent union mentors” in IBEW 2321, especially when the union went on strike for months in 1989 over health care contributions.
“I helped negotiate a fair and equitable agreement that helped the call center’s 145 members have a say in how overtime was offered and distributed,” said Richardson, who has a law degree and is now a legal assistant 2 at the Justice Center.
Richardson said she is a member of Tier 6, but worries about pension benefits for less senior employees and for their opportunities to advance in their careers.
“Our union faces challenges in the form of ‘right-to-work,’ apathy and sometimes disinterest,” Richardson continued. “I believe it also has a great chance now to engage all of our workforce over important benefits the union provides that matter to each individual. Management has a right to run the agency, but we are the workforce that keeps everything moving smoothly. It behooves us to show how we can do the work better and more reliably than outside contractors or temporary staff.”
While PS&T employees have many issues in common, the investigatory and law enforcement role of the Justice Center has created a feeling among many PEF members that the center is their enemy and a potential threat to their jobs and even to their professional careers. And that mistrust has led to hostility that is felt and resented by those who work at the center.
“Our members have felt pretty demonized by PEF and it was fairly shocking for them, as many of us were union members prior to our employment at the Justice Center and we expected to have the same brotherhood and sisterhood we found in other union shops,” Keegan said. Even Communicator stories about members struggling to defend themselves against allegations of wrongdoing have felt hurtful to members at the center, she said.
“I’ve had members out working in the community representing the Justice Center who have been approached by PEF members and told that they weren’t liked or were hated, and that they worked for the ‘injustice’ center,” Keegan said.
Richardson, too, spoke up at the Region 8 Leadership Conference when Spence reported on new legal services for members defending themselves against charges resulting from Justice Center investigations. Spence said he did not intend to demean the work of members at the center.
“So, I think, first and foremost, our members need for other PEF members to understand that we are doing our jobs, and that we are doing good work. They need to tamper the outright vitriol. We need to feel we are welcome in the union. That is a top priority for our Division 232 steward council right now,” Keegan said.
“Bridging these painful divides is crucially important for us as individual members and even more so for our union as a whole,” Spence said. “Our enemies know that if they can divide us, they can conquer us, and leave each of us weak and vulnerable to unfair treatment at work and in society.
“Our union is a powerful force we use to protect ourselves, our services and the New Yorkers who rely on us,” Spence said. “Those who attack us are out to destroy more than our union. They want all of the wealth and all of the power and control in this country. Unions are standing in their way, which is why we are under attack. When we attack each other, we are doing their dirty work for them. Linking arms and standing strong and absolutely united is the only way we can prevail against the waves of attacks that are ramping up right now.”