Bills target sex abuse at state facilities
Inspired to react, at least in part, by abuse allegations at the Sonoma Developmental Center, Senators Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill last week that seeks to address the handling of sexual assaults at state developmental centers and state hospital facilities.
The purpose of the bill is to mandate that victims of sexual assaults, or suspected sexual assaults, at state run facilities receive outside forensic medical exams, and specifies penalties if that does not happen.
Pavley and Leno met two to three times, according to one person who attended the meetings, with a coalition of groups – including Disability Rights California, the California District Attorneys Association, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), The Arc of California and United Cerebral Palsy – while drafting the bill. Though Pavley’s office first reached out to the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), which runs SDC and all the developmental centers, in December, DDS was not a part of the groups that provided input on the proposed bill.
In November 2012, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch highlighted instances of sexual abuse at state development centers, and documented a record of negligence in reporting them in a series of stories. “Much of the alleged sexual abuse in the California institutions has occurred at the Sonoma Developmental Center, where female patients have been repeatedly assaulted, internal incident records show. In one case, a caregiver was cleared by the police department of assault and went on to molest a second patient,” wrote California Watch’s Ryan Gabrielson. As part of the series, a widely circulated video titled “Jennifer’s Room” chronicled the story of “Jennifer,” a disabled resident at SDC who became pregnant through a rape.
Leslie Morrison, directing attorney of Disability Rights California’s Investigations Unit, said, “There were discussions specifically about Sonoma Developmental Center, yes, but we see this as a potential problem in all the state developmental centers and in the state psychiatric hospitals.”
The problems that came to light at SDC, as the groups discussed them, were found not to be unique to the facility, but systemic at the DDS level, thus the perceived need for legislation. “The issues that have come out of Sonoma could easily be replicated elsewhere, because the same barriers exist,” said Morrison. She cited an internal police force and on-campus physicians not sufficiently experienced in sexual assault examinations, nor equipped with the necessary equipment, as in-common barriers to appropriate investigation and reporting.
An Assembly bill, introduced this week by Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, D–Davis, seeks to require special training for OPS officers. The bills are intended as pieces of companion legislation.
“If it’s going to help solve the problem and provide our officers with the tools to do the job, we’re all for it,” said Ryan Navarre, legal council at the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA), of the tandem bills.
Currently, officers with the Office of Protective Services (OPS), the in-house police force at SDC and all other developmental centers, receive POST (Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training) SIBC (Specialized Investigator’s Basic Course) training – the same standard level of training a sheriff’s deputy, for example, would receive.
But there are many differences between standard peace officers and OPS. For example, points out Navarre, OPS officers are required to do their jobs in uniform and in patrol cars – often dealing with criminally incarcerated individuals at state hospitals (though not at SDC) – without firearms. Another major difference is that OPS officers are dealing day-in-and-day-out with developmentally disabled individuals. Yamada’s bill, if passed, would require POST to establish by July 1, 2015 “a training course relating to law enforcement interaction with mentally disabled or developmentally disabled persons living within a state mental hospital or state developmental center.”
“The legislation may have some value, but it’s not going to achieve the desired result,” said Timothy Simms, a retired police officer who has served as Petaluma police chief, and who was hired by DDS in 2003 to conduct evaluations of OPS. He found gross deficiencies at SDC and other facilities, including lack of timely reporting to law enforcement, significantly delayed reporting, crime scenes not preserved, poorly trained and inexperienced employees, poor evidence handling and processing, and an overall lack of oversight and accountability. “Here it is 10 years later, and most of the problems still exist. Just as bad as ever. And very little corrective action has been taken,” he said.
In December, DDS entered into a temporary agreement with the California Highway Patrol to oversee OPS until a permanent commander can be hired – an action it has taken in the past.
“You cannot legislate competence or professionalism in an organization,” said Simms. “You need to get the right people in place to make sure they have the right equipment the right training. … Unless you have competent leadership in place, it won’t do a thing.”
Neither the CSLEA nor any other law enforcement agency were consulted on the bills, which now will wind their way through committee into April and the floor of the Senate and House this spring and summer.