Three families are suing staff members of a “sadistic” Bronx group home for people with developmental disabilities for allegedly abusing their family members for more than a decade. According to the complaint, staff members commonly punched, spit on, slapped, sexually abused, and denied food from non-verbal women residents, some who only have the “functioning of a toddler.”
Since the Union Avenue IRA home — sarcastically called the “Bronx Zoo” by employees — is run by New York State, the lawsuit also blames the state’s Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) for neglecting to intervene, specifically after receiving a letter from a staff whistleblower documenting the abuse.
Staff were at best unqualified and poorly trained and at worst sadistic and barbarous
“It’s revolting, appalling, inhuman,” said Ilann Maazel, the lead attorney for the case. “This case represents a complete breakdown in hiring, training, investigation, discipline, and oversight.”
In 2014, a Union Avenue IRA staff member sent an anonymous letter to the OPWDD, describing the abuse that was going on in the home. But, after the office waited weeks to act on it, the state eventually only decided to place a few staff members on paid administrative leave.
“State employees continued their abuse of the most vulnerable, innocent, and helpless among us, and no one did anything to stop it,” the complaint reads. “This is not a case of one bad apple — the whole tree is rotten to the core.”
Part of the issue, the plaintiffs argue, stems from poor training at the managerial level. In the prior state investigation, officials found that staff members were not trained on how to document a resident’s physical injuries or health abnormalities — or on how to handle any behavioral issues. Without proper training, staff turned to abuse when faced with a challenge. Many often gave residents the wrong medication, falsified their medical documents, and failed to schedule necessary doctors’ appointments.
“Staff were at best unqualified and poorly trained and at worst sadistic and barbarous,” the complaint reads. “Yet they were given virtually total control over the lives of profoundly vulnerable disabled group home residents.”
One family member claims her sister, a 46-year-old resident of Union Avenue IRA, contracted a STD in 2004. Since she is legally incompetent to consent to sex, her sister argued she was raped. However, staffers blamed a person outside the organization. The two other female residents included in the complaint were sent to the hospital multiple times for “discoloring” around the eyes and other parts of their body. Staff allegedly denied they were, in fact, bruises.
This is not a case of one bad apple — the whole tree is rotten to the core
The lawsuit hopes to put an end to the state’s mishandling. “We call on Governor Cuomo and the Bronx District Attorney to get justice for these families, and to make sure no disabled person is abused in a New York State group home ever again,” Maazel said.
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new project in Cortland, New York: A state-run residential facility for low-income and developmentally disabled residents. The facility will come with “support” staff.
“Access to housing is a basic human right and today we are building on our efforts to ensure that every New Yorker has a safe and affordable place to live,” Cuomo said in a statement. “This project will help provide the most vulnerable residents in the region with a place to call home.”