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16 employees at Sunmount on leave

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Twelve employees at a facility that cares for people who have developmental disabilities in the north country have been accused since April of psychologically and physically abusing patients.

The state is seeking to fire the 12 workers, who are on unpaid administrative leave from Sunmount Developmental Center in Tupper Lake, according to the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, which oversees the patchwork of private caregivers around the state. The state is also seeking to fire four other workers for other offenses, including drug arrests.

The state has come under withering criticism after a New York Times investigation in March concluded that the constellation of private groups that cares for people who are developmentally disabled “operates with scant oversight and few consequences for employees who abuse the vulnerable population.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has vowed to address those problems, and the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities reported in October that it has nearly doubled the number of terminations it was seeking, to 130. At this time last year, the Sunmount group was trying to fire three of the group’s roughly 1,100 employees, the OPWDD said.

But barriers to reform remain, advocates for people who have disabilities say. For example, a follow-up story in the New York Times last week reported that OPWDD employees who blew the whistle on abuses under the promise of confidentiality were reported to agency officials. And strong collective bargaining agreements with state unions make it difficult even now to remove employees.

Though OPWDD could offer no specific details on what abuse is alleged to have occurred at Sunmount, the New York Times investigation singled out the facility, where it said “patterns of abuse appear embedded in the culture.” A supervisor there was accused four times in two and a half months of physical or psychological abuse, the Times investigation reported; on a Facebook page, an employee wrote of “beating retards.”

At its Tupper Lake facility, Sunmount cares for 200 people. It also oversees a network of group homes throughout St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and Essex counties, with a total of about 3,000 clients.

Officials there referred comment to the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities.

Members of the facility’s Board of Visitors called the accusations troubling, but perhaps overstated.

The Rev. William R. Cuthbert, a retired Baptist minister who lives in Potsdam and serves as the board’s president, said Sunmount was doing an “excellent” job, but acknowledged that some criticisms are valid.

“They think that these are deficient people, that they can bully them and do what they want to them,” the Rev. Mr. Cuthbert said. “We’re extremely careful that that doesn’t happen.”

He added that firing employees can be a vexing problem because of strong contracts that state employees have.

“It is hard to fire them because of arbitration,” the Rev. Mr. Cuthbert said. “That is not something we can effectively deal with.”

Paul A. Maroun, the mayor-elect of Tupper Lake who sits on the Board of Visitors, said some clients falsely accuse employees of abuse.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen,” Mr. Maroun said. “But I think ‘pattern’ is a very strong word.”

The OPWDD said in a six-month progress report that it was making strides in addressing the abuses.

“Some of our initiatives, including creation of a new culture of staff responsibility, will take time,” OPWDD Commissioner Courtney Burke, who took her post in April after her predecessor was forced out due to the abuse revelations, said in a news release. “But we have made great strides in the first six months that are making this system safer today.”

Among other measures, the state will no longer allow employees who were fired for abuse at a state facility to be hired in another one; it also will require more extensive background checks. Its reforms have led to a higher rate of reported abuses over the past six months, the state said in the report.

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