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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara
"Restoring a fundamental responsibility"
ALBANY, July 8 -- One of the most heartening achievements of the recently concluded legislative session was the Legislature’s galvanizing strong, bipartisan support around what can be seen as an overwhelming recommitment to the protection of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
First came the Legislature’s refusal to let stand a $90-million cut in funding to the state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) that was included in this year’s state budget. Both the Senate and Assembly had originally called for rejecting a $120-million or six-percent, across-the-board reduction proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to OPWDD – the lead state agency overseeing state assistance to programs and services for people with developmental disabilities. By late March, when the final budget was adopted, the governor would only agree to a $30-million restoration, or just one-quarter of his original cut – believing that the rest of the savings could be achieved through agency belt tightening and cost cutting that wouldn’t impact direct programs and services.
It sparked a rare, overwhelming coalition of Senate and Assembly members, from both sides of the political aisle, which simply refused to let it stand. We never gave up on removing this threat to programs and services that are the lifelines for people with disabilities and their families. Legislation (S.4777/A.6692-C) approved in mid-June will ensure that OPWDD’s funding will be fully restored even if the previously established working group is unable to achieve recommended savings and cost efficiencies.
Now that action’s being followed up by another important announcement for New Yorkers with special needs. The last weekend in June brought the opening of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, a new state agency that “will implement the toughest standards and practices in the nation to protect the special needs community from abuse and neglect.” This new Justice Center was created through legislation (S.7749/A.10721) Governor Cuomo advanced and the Legislature approved without a single vote in opposition early last year to implement key reforms in the way the state cares for people with special needs. You may recall that it stemmed from a series of New York Times reports and subsequent internal Cuomo administration investigations in 2011 and 2012 involving long simmering allegations of abuse and neglect of the mentally ill, disabled, elderly and other patients with special needs at state-run group homes, hospitals and other facilities.
In short, we were given a troubling look inside the operations of state facilities whose mission, above all else, is to take care of and protect their patients. It quickly became clear that actions were needed to put in place a stronger safety net. It was straightforward: we had a high responsibility to ensure that the care and safety of patients at state facilities was restored as the absolute priority. The opening of a new Justice Center caps the effort to put in place the strongest standards and practices in the nation for protecting people with special needs and disabilities.
“The Justice Center is committed to the fundamental principle that all New Yorkers with special needs are to be protected from abuse and neglect, and receive the best care possible,” said the Center’s Executive Director, Jeffrey Wise, an experienced professional who previously served as president of the NYS Rehabilitation Association.
The governor added, “The Justice Center will be dedicated to implementing the strongest protections in the nation for over one million New Yorkers with special needs. Under the Justice Center, we will work around the clock to safeguard the rights and protections of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Additional information about the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, which will operate a 24/7 statewide hotline and incident reporting system, can be found on its website at www.justicecenter.ny.gov.
Thankfully it’s not a common occurrence, but inevitably there are times when failings come to light that are disturbing, egregious and sometimes even worse. So when revelations like those being addressed by the Justice Center do surface, they need to be addressed and repaired immediately. That’s been the case over the past year.
We’re right to condemn the lack of discipline and oversight that apparently festered in far too many places over far too many years under previous administrations. But the swiftness of the response to set things straight has been welcome, and hopeful.
Above all else, we’ve moved to put the words “care of the patient” back where they belong – as priority number one.
Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara
Schuyler County Officials
Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Thomas Gifford, Doris Karius, Glenn Larison
Bottom row: Michael A. Yuhasz, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field
Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687
Michael A. Yuhasz, 535-4967
Doris L. Karius, 546-5544
Barbara Halpin, 594-3683
Glenn R. Larison, 594-3385
Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517
Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen 481-0482
Stewart Field, Watkins Glen 535-2335
County Clerk: Linda Compton, 535-8133
Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222
Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222
County Treasurer: Margaret Starbuck, 535-8181
District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383
State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County
Sen. Charles E. Schumer
United States Senate
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senate
State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)
Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Assemblyman Christopher Friend --
Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869