P&A access aids investigations

Alexis DeLaCruz
DRW Legal Intern

As the State of Washington’s Protection and Advocacy system, Disability Rights Washington (“DRW”), is in the unique position to have significant access to records in private and public facilities serving people with disabilities. 

DRW’s access includes but is not limited to clients, facilities, records and other pertinent documents. This access allows DRW to investigate reports of abuse and neglect more efficiently and effectively.  

The Protection and Advocacy System was developed in the late 1970s in response to an investigative report by journalist Geraldo Rivera. Rivera’s report exposed abuse, neglect and lack of programming for people with developmental disabilities residing in a state institution in New York.

Mandated by Congress, all 50 states and U.S. territories have a Protection and Advocacy System to advocate for and protects the rights of people with disabilities. 

Under federal law, DRW has the authority to investigate reports of abuse and neglect that are reported directly to the agency or in situations when the agency believes there is probable cause that an incident of abuse or neglect will or has occurred.

Pursuant to the Protection and Advocacy of Developmental Disabilities and Protection and Advocacy of Individuals with Mental Illness Acts, probable cause is defined as a “reasonable belief that an individual with a [disability] has been, or may be, subject to abuse or neglect. The individual making such determination may base the decision on reasonable inferences drawn from his or her experience or training regarding similar incidents, condition or problems that are usually associated with abuse and neglect.”

DRW has the authority to request records from and contact any facility in the state – whether private or public – that treats or otherwise serves people with disabilities. For example, DRW regularly monitors and investigates reports of abuse or neglect at jails, prisons, state mental health hospitals, nursing facilities and homes where clients receive supported living services.

DRW has the authority to investigate reports of abuse or neglect by requesting records from an individual if the individual consents, the individual’s guardian consents or if the individual cannot consent and DRW has probable cause to investigate. DRW can monitor facilities or supported living providers as a result of litigation. This access is unique to DRW as many facilities do not allow access to the general public.

If a facility does allow access to the general public it is usually under restricted conditions. In certain circumstances, DRW can receive records from a request in three days.

In conducting an investigation of abuse or neglect, DRW staff often consider whether an agency responded to the allegations of harm appropriately, and if the agency took appropriate measures to protect and meet the needs of people with disabilities. Depending upon the results of the investigation, DRW can write a report outlining its findings and making suggestions for change or pursue legal or administrative remedies.

As an example, DRW conducted an investigation into whether a supported living provider in Tacoma neglected a client during the heat wave of July 2009, resulting in the client suffering from heat exhaustion and kidney failure. The client, Melanie Starr, was not provided proper care, including taking her to a cooling center and immediately calling 911 once staff realized Starr was ill.

Starr’s case is just one example of the types of investigations DRW conducts on behalf of people with disabilities in Washington.    

For more information on a recent case upholding DRW's access authority, see the story "Access" on page 12 of the DRW Biennium Report.

Freedom from abuse and neglect