Defending Those who Can’t Defend Themselves

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

Most parents or caregivers of a special needs person would say it would be impossible for them to lead anything resembling normal lives without the support of dedicated professionals who help care for their loved one. Families of children and adults with special needs rely heavily on outside caregivers and assistants with specialized training in the fields of medicine, mental health, and special education. The vast majority of these professionals perform mostly unheralded, heroic work on a daily basis. That is why it comes as such a brutal shock when a family discovers that its trust has been betrayed. That is what happened to at least two families in the Albany region of upstate New York, both of whom had entrusted the care of a relative to the Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center, or “O.D. Heck,” as it was known locally.

Jonathan Carey, a boy with autism, was only 13 when he died in the back of a van at O.D. Heck in 2007. The O.D. Heck employee who was restraining him, a 9th grade dropout with a criminal record, had worked an average of more than 90 hours per week during the 15-day period leading up to Jonathan’s death. He was convicted of manslaughter, and the driver of the van, who did nothing to stop Jonathan from being crushed to death and then drove around for more than an hour afterwards, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. The state paid Jonathan’s family $5 million in 2011 to settle two civil lawsuits his family filed related to his death. The young man in the second case, K.C., was 22 when he arrived at O.D. Heck for his short and ultimately fatal stay. At his previous institution in Kansas, K.C. was an affectionate and mischievous young man who enjoyed riding around the facility on a tricycle. His experience at Heck was a stark contrast: he spent most of his days alone on a small gym mat. If he attempted to leave the mat, staff denied him food and water … or gagged him and beat him with a stick they had dubbed “the magic wand.” He eventually died of complications from malnutrition and pneumonia. The facts of Jonathan’s and K.C.’s stories only came to light after a whistleblower employee told what she knew to the New York Times in 2011, prompting a series of investigative reports that helped spur an overhaul in how New York state handles its care of disabled persons. As part of that overhaul, O.D. Heck closed its doors this spring. Abusive conditions aren’t always a matter of intent. Closer to our area, there was the case of John Glenn Popple, whose family placed him in a group home after his care needs exceeded the abilities of his elderly and recently widowed mother. John was severely mentally disabled and his behaviors sometimes posed a danger to his own safety.

He required round-the-clock supervision by members of the group home’s staff, a need spelled out in his care plan. He didn’t get that care. One night in 2010, while nobody was watching him, John wandered out of his room, down a hallway, and into a kitchen area reserved for employees and staff. He found a box of donuts, and, with nobody to stop him, crammed his mouth and throat full, cutting off his air supply and choking him to death. Our office represented John’s family in the ensuing lawsuit. We negotiated an out-of-court settlement in 2014. John’s family then set up a charity to help support organizations that improve the care conditions for mentally disabled persons throughout northeast Pennsylvania. When we entrust the care of a loved one with special needs to professionals, whether for a few hours or for the rest of their life, we do so with the reasonable expectation that the vulnerable person will be afforded basic dignity, respect, and care. When that expectation is not met, our legal team can help you hold the responsible parties accountable. If you suspect that someone in your family has suffered abuse at the hands of a professional who has been entrusted with their care, call the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton personal injury attorneys of Scartelli Olszewski today.