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Sunmount, other facilities focus of Assembly hearing

The state Assembly held a public hearing earlier this week focusing on allegations of abuse at facilities like Sunmount DDSO in Tupper Lake.

A New York Times article published last week and authored by reporter Danny Hakim claimed "systemic abuse" at developmental care facilities across New York.

Reaction among lawmakers has been swift. State Senator Betty Little says the accusations must be taken seriously, and the Assembly is already working on reforms.

Policymakers in Albany say they're working to address the allegations that people with developmental disabilities are at risk when sent to places like Sunmount.

Courtney Burke heads the Office for People with Development Disabilities. She spoke during this week's Assembly hearing.

"It is my expectation that every OPWDD employee takes reports of abuse and neglect seriously and acts swiftly to insure safety in our system," Burke said.

Burke told lawmakers that reforms are currently under way.

"This review will lead to thoughtful, comprehensive changes to these systems and will assure that an appropriate design for abuse prevention and remediation is in place," she said. "That comprehensive review will take more time, but I have taken immediate steps to heighten protections for individuals receiving services in our system."

The Times report argues that residents of facilities like Sunmount have experienced both emotional and physical abuse. It also alleges that investigations into such abuse have been "bungled."

The report also criticizes the state for its hiring practices at developmental care offices.

Speaking Monday on the public radio program Capital Pressroom, Hakim said there are still unanswered questions surrounding certain incidents at Sunmount.

"I wrote about a gentleman at Sunmount who was over 300 pounds, very tall, very physical," Hakim said. "While he could be physical, the response to him was overwhelmingly physical. And then when you have employees going on Facebook and bragging about beating up 'retards,' which is the word that they used, I don't think anyone would think that's an appropriate response."

Following that incident, five Sunmount staff members were placed on administrative leave. State officials say safety measures now in place make that kind of incident less likely.

Senator Little and others, like Tupper Lake Village Mayor Mickey Desmarais, say the allegations should be taken seriously.

But they also note how important Sunmount - one of the region's largest employers - is to both the Tupper Lake community and the area economy.

Little hopes that the reforms being discussed this week will make Sunmount a stronger institution.

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