The Legislature can act now to provide more security for people with disabilities

By James Brett
Special to the Reporter

A proposal to achieve enhanced protection for some of our most vulnerable citizens – people with disabilities – could become reality if lawmakers advance the measure during its informal sessions.

The bill, S. 2606, would create a registry to include individuals with a history of allegations of abuse against those with disabilities and ensure that employers have access to this history when considering hiring someone for a caregiver position.

The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate in July and has widespread support in the Legislature, but the House did not act on it prior to the close of its session. Still, legislators can move this important measure over the goal line by securing final approvals in an informal session.

Most consumers and their families assume that caregivers for people with disabilities are screened in a way that includes criminal background checks. It’s an unfortunate fact that each year investigations conducted by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission find instances where people with disabilities are abused or neglected by their caregivers. For many reasons, many of these cases do not result in criminal prosecution against the caregivers. Even if they lose their jobs, without a criminal charge, they are free to seek and secure work with this vulnerable population.

These types of findings, although serious, evade pre-employment background checks because they were not fully prosecuted. The bill before the Legislature would close this loophole and enhance the protection of persons with disabilities by preventing these abusers from continuing to work in the human services field.

Under the proposal, the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) would be charged with the creation of the Massachusetts Registry of Abusers of Persons with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities to include individuals who have been found to have substantiated abuse against people with disabilities. The Department of Developmental Services and employers would be required to check the registry before hiring or contracting with individuals, and prohibited from hiring or contracting a caregiver who is on the registry.

More than a year after the bill was introduced, advocates and providers note that it strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of those alleged to have committed abuse with the protection of the abused.

On the House side, H.1958 was drafted by the DPPC and co-sponsored by 75 members of the House. The bill would update the terminology and investigative practices related to protecting people with disabilities. The time has come to close this serious loophole in the system of conducting background checks. Many people with disabilities rely on agencies and organizations to provide quality caregivers to assist them with daily living, transportation, and other needs. People with disabilities have a right to feel safe and know that their protection is the top priority of service providers.

The Senate has resoundingly approved this proposal. The House can ensure a final approval even in an informal session. The bill came close to approval in the recent House session. Here’s a hope that the Legislature will see it through in informal session.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of the New England Council. He served as the chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and continues to serve as a member.