Building Partnerships for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities (BPI) is a statewide initiative in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that uses a multidisciplinary team approach to link law enforcement, adult protection and human services, self-advocates and others to address abuse, neglect and crimes committed against persons with a disability. The principle is a simple one – a multidisciplinary approach more adequately ensures equal access to the criminal justice system for victims with a disability.
Historically, in Massachusetts, before BPI, relationships between adult protection, human services and law enforcement were not well-developed. In fact, with few exceptions, there was no working relationship. Arguably, the absence of a working relationship had to do with the perception that adult protection, human services and law enforcement had competing interests. There was a feeling on the part of some in adult protection and human services that law enforcement’s main objective was to arrest and prosecute, without regard to the needs of the victim or defendant. Some in law enforcement were reluctant to investigate cases involving victims with a disability because of the complexity and difficulty of investigating and prosecuting such cases. In addition, the lack of an established system of reporting created a situation where cases fell through the cracks.
In the mid-1990s, the House of Horrors and several other high-profile cases became the subject of a Massachusetts House Post Audit and Oversight investigation that culminated in a scathing legislative report. The report found serious problems with the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) [then-Department of Mental Retardation (DMR)] investigations, responses to abuse and client mortality, and deficiencies in communication. Are you sure about this guy? Report on the Department of Mental Retardation: An Investigation by the House of Representatives Post Audit and Oversight Bureau, 1997.
In June 1997, in response to the report, a statewide panel in Massachusetts reviewed and evaluated the Department of Disability Services Investigations Unit and its practices and procedures, including those regarding notification and coordination with local police and prosecutors. The panel developed a series of recommendations focusing on the screening and investigation of crimes committed against persons with a disability. The recommendations prioritized a strong risk assessment and protective services capacity to move swiftly, compassionately and effectively to provide services to persons with a developmental disability who were in at-risk or established risk situations. Shortly thereafter, the recommendations were expanded to include, not only cases involving victims with a developmental or intellectual disability, but also victims with a mental illness and victims with a physical disability.
House of Horrors – The Case that Changed the System in Massachusetts
In 1997, in Massachusetts, a case of long-term abuse and neglect of two men with a developmental disability made headline news in print and broadcast media. The story began in 1989, when Tim, a 19-year old man with a developmental disability was placed by his mother alone on a bus in Louisiana. His destination was Massachusetts. Tim, whom professionals in both Louisiana and Massachusetts described as compliant, shy, lacking self-esteem and eager to please, was departing a life of sexual and physical abuse, and deprivation. He was about to enter a world of torture, torment and slavery.
Tim arrived in Raynham, Massachusetts and, together with Al, an older man with a developmental disability, moved in with two brothers, Harold and Karol Simonton, self-designated ‘caregivers’. Over the next seven and one-half years, the Simonton brothers sexually and physically abused Tim and Al. In addition, they used Tim’s and Al’s social security checks for their personal use. For several years, despite questions and concerns about Tim’s and Al’s safety and well being, the brothers managed to evade legitimate inquiries by authorities.
While numerous calls were placed to a hotline, as well as to state and local law enforcement about potential abuse occurring at the Simonton residence, and school, banking and community members observed indicia of abuse and fraud, the abuse allegations were never substantiated. The physical abuse included being tied to a hot radiator and burned with boiling water, as well being struck with a thorn stick, hammer and a motor chain that caused blindness in one of Al’s eyes. After many years of abuse, Tim went missing. While he had run away, that fact was not immediately known. Law enforcement officers were notified of Tim’s disappearance and, subsequently, officers were able to obtain a search warrant for the Simonton house. There, they found Al, who exhibited signs of long-term abuse. The brothers were arrested, charged with several crimes, convicted and sentenced to prison.
When the case broke in 1997, little did anyone know that a review of how the system failed Tim and Al would become the impetus for significant systemic change in Massachusetts. The House of Horrors and several other high-profile cases led to a Massachusetts House Post Audit Committee and Oversight investigation that resulted in a scathing report about the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) [then-Department of Mental Retardation (DMR)]. The report highlighted serious problems with the agency’s investigations, response to abuse and client mortality, and deficiencies in communication. Are you sure about this guy? Report on the Department of Mental Retardation: An Investigation by the House of Representatives Post Audit and Oversight Bureau, 1997.
The Massachusetts Response
In June 1997, in response to the House Post Audit and Oversight report, the then-recently hired commissioner of DDS, Gerald Morrissey created an Investigations Advisory Panel (Panel), with representation from law enforcement, the judiciary, academia and families of clients throughout the commonwealth. The Panel, chaired by then-Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel, was charged with reviewing and evaluating DDS’s Investigations Unit and its practices and procedures, including those regarding notification and coordination with local and state police.
The panel concluded that most of the problems hampering the effectiveness of DDS’s Investigations Unit were systemic in nature and included such issues as poor relationships between agencies, the lack of a layered system prioritizing the most serious cases and the insufficient, untimely and, in some cases, complete lack of referrals to appropriate law enforcement and criminal justice authorities. There was an absence of formal procedures and cooperative agreements with law enforcement agencies for the management and investigation of complaints of criminal conduct. This appeared to be due to a lack of awareness, lack of effective coordination between human service agencies and law enforcement, and reluctance by police, prosecutors and judges to rely on the testimony of a person with a disability. When crimes committed against persons with a disability were reported to law enforcement, they were often reported days or even weeks after the crime occurred. Crime scenes and physical evidence were destroyed, and witness testimony was often compromised by multiple interviews with the victim, witnesses and the perpetrator.
These problems contributed to low arrest and prosecution rates for persons who committed crimes against persons with a disability. In 1997, in Massachusetts, the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) referred to law enforcement for criminal investigation statewide only 32 cases, none of which resulted in a prosecution. Arguably, crime victims with a disability did not have equal access to the criminal justice system.
The Panel’s recommendations focused on both the screening and investigation of crimes committed against persons with a developmental disability. The recommendations presumed a strong risk assessment and protective services capacity to provide emergency protective services to persons with a developmental disability. The Panel’s recommendations for strengthening screening protocols included establishing the specific information needed for a referral or complaint, referring suspected felony abuse to law enforcement in a consistent and timely manner, creating criminal liaisons within the DDS Investigations Unit to conduct joint investigations with law enforcement, requiring DDS adult protective investigators to complete basic and advanced criminal investigation training and requiring law enforcement to receive adult protective investigation and other disability-related training.
While the scope of the Panel involved the DDS Investigations Unit, it became clear that the Panel’s recommendation should and could be extended to cover all of the human service agencies providing services to persons with a disability. Then- Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services, William O’Leary coordinated that effort with representatives of the human service agencies and law enforcement, resulting in BPI’s creation.
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)
One of the cornerstones of the Massachusetts BPI is a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), specific to each district attorney’s jurisdiction. There are eleven district attorneys in Massachusetts whose jurisdictions are, for the most part, divided along county lines. District attorneys are the chief law enforcement officers for their respective jurisdictions and, therefore, responsible for the prosecution of crimes that occur in those jurisdictions.
The MOU is a cooperative agreement between law enforcement, prosecutors and adult protection. Its purpose is to provide a framework for the prompt and effective reporting, investigation and prosecution of crimes against a person with a disability. The MOU identifies, in a particular jurisdiction, the reporting and investigatory responsibilities of law enforcement and persons and agencies providing services to a person with a disability. As such, the MOU has the added benefit of addressing issues before they become problems and of preventing duplication of services and resources. Cases are less likely to fall through the cracks.
The process begins with a report of an allegation of abuse or neglect of a person with a disability. Massachusetts is unique in having a State Police Detective Unit (SPDU) assigned to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC), an independent adult protection and oversight agency that receives reports of suspected abuse. The SPDU’s members are experienced state police officers that review reports of abuse to determine whether a crime has been committed against a person with a disability.
If appropriate, a referral is then made to the district attorney in whose jurisdiction the alleged abuse occurred. A specially designated assistant district attorney or coordinator reviews the referral, assigns it for further investigation to local or state police in his/her jurisdiction or to state police assigned to SPDU and decides whether there is sufficient evidence to seek a criminal complaint(s). At that time, an Adult Protective Service (APS) investigator is also assigned. Throughout the review and investigation period, there is ongoing communication and coordination between law enforcement and the APS investigator. In fact, it is the intent and spirit of the MOU that, in all circumstances, a criminal investigator makes every reasonable effort to include the APS investigator in all parts of the criminal investigation.
The APS investigator assists with the interview of a person with a disability and other witnesses, shares information concerning the services provided and/or available by his/her agency to all involved parties and, where allowed by statute, obtains files and records from prior investigations involving the same alleged victim or alleged abuser. The APS investigator protects the alleged victim’s or alleged abuser’s privacy rights, as required by law, during the criminal investigation and recommends protective services to the alleged victim in a timely manner.
When abuse of a person with a disability is alleged, under Massachusetts law, an APS investigator is required to conduct a civil investigation to determine whether abuse has occurred and what protective services are needed. Usually, a joint investigation between law enforcement and APS provides the information/evidence necessary to satisfy the requirements of an APS investigation. The cooperative aspect of the MOU allows for communication/decision-making between the criminal and civil investigators, resulting in better protections for the victim(s).