BOSTON — Richard Buckley's intellectually disabled brother died of complications from third-degree burns in a state-run group home in West Peabody 17 years ago.
His brother, David, had Down syndrome and had been sexually assaulted by a male staffer at another group in Hamilton before his family moved him to the Peabody facility. He was 39 when he died.
"He was forcibly made to shower because he soiled himself," Buckley, a member of the nonprofit Massachusetts Coalition of Families and Advocates, told a legislative panel on Tuesday as he fought back tears. "The woman charged with taking care of him had him held down as she hosed him down with scalding hot water while he screamed in pain."
Buckley was one of several advocates calling for tougher rules to protect the disabled living in group homes during a hearing Tuesday before the Legislature's Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities. The panel is reviewing state regulations for group homes that advocates say haven’t been updated in years.
The 2001 incident involving Buckley’s brother left him badly burned over 40 percent of his body and in a medically induced coma, he said. His brother died of his injuries at Beverly Hospital.
"His genitals were basically burned off his body," he said. "He went into immediate shock, yet 911 wasn't called for hours."
Buckley said his family spent years searching for answers about his brother's death in a quest to hold operators of the group homes accountable. The Department of Developmental Services investigated, as did the Essex County District Attorney's Office, but criminal charges were never filed, he said.
The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which the state eventually settled for $100,000, but not before charging $98,000 for overdue hospital bills, he said.
"The state paid my family $2,000 for the death of my brother, which according to them didn't happen," Buckley said.
State defends monitoring
Private contractors operate about 1,800 group homes in Massachusetts, while the state runs about 200 residential facilities, according to the Arc of Massachusetts, a nonprofit group that advocates for people with disabilities.
About 10,000 children and adults with disabilities live in the homes.
Two years ago, a federal report faulted the state for failing to alert authorities when developmentally disabled residents in group homes suffer injuries caused by abuse and neglect.
An audit by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general found state officials and group home workers "failed to adequately protect" 146 of 334 developmentally disabled residents whose emergency room visits were reviewed.
On Tuesday, state officials pushed back on such claims, pointing to regular monitoring of privately owned facilities to prevent abuse and neglect.
State officials train, inspect and certify contractors who operate group homes, which are subject to unannounced visits, said Jane Ryder, acting commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services.
Investigators vigorously research reports of sexual abuse and neglect, and they follow up on complaints called into a hotline, she said.
"When an allegation is made DDS takes immediate protective action," she told the panel. "But one sexual assault suffered by someone with an intellectual disability is one too many."
Call for registry
Nancy Alterio, executive director of the Disabled Persons Protections Commission, said the level of sexual abuse of the disabled nationally is "staggering" and often goes unreported.
Last year, the nonprofit group tallied at least 878 allegations of sexual assault by caregivers reported to its hotline.
"Sexual abuse of persons with disabilities is a prolific problem," said Alterio. "Statistics have shown that nationally persons with disabilities, both men and women, are victims of sexual abuse at a rate seven times more than others."
Buckley compares allegations of sexual abuse against the disabled to the scandals involving sex abuse by clergy. He urged lawmakers to pass legislation, known as Nicky's Law, creating a registry of allegations involving individuals who work with the disabled.
"You're putting them in harm's way by doing nothing," he said. "If nothing is done, the next rape, assault or death will be on you. And we will remember that."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.