The Ohio agency responsible for protecting the health and safety of people with disabilities quietly floated plans to allow abusive caregivers easier access to thousands of children and adults.
It’s a plan that was abruptly dropped just weeks after News 5 Cleveland began raising questions about abusive treatment of people with disabilities across Ohio.
The Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities (DODD) is charged with “protecting the health and safety” of 96,000 people with disabilities in home settings, as well as private- and state-operated facilities across the state.
On March 29, the agency quietly announced “its intent to rescind” a key rule and make it easier for abusers to strike again.
The rule change would establish “new procedures” that would allow abusers to remove their names from the department’s public abuser registry, which identifies more than 800 abusive caregivers whose cases were substantiated.
It also shows whether or not they’ve been convicted of a crime. The registry is meant to prevent abusers from working with people with disabilities in the future.
But on May 3, the DODD abruptly cancelled proposed hearings. The agency told News 5 Cleveland in an email that it “withdrew the Abuser Registry rule in order to evaluate recently received feedback.”
Specifically, the change would have permitted abusers to remove their names from the registry after only one year instead of the current five-year period, which bars them from being able to work as caregivers, according to disability rights advocates.
“We haven’t been able to get a satisfactory answer as to why that should occur at one year as opposed to five years,” said Michael Kirkman, Executive Director of Disability Rights Ohio.
Kirkman said his organization posted the state’s plan on its Facebook page, and it quickly ignited a firestorm of protest.
Kirkman explains the public abuser registry in the video below.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to make their living training and supporting people with developmental disabilities,” said Kirkman, referring to abusers who could be removed from the registry. “The pattern for people to abuse is very clear — there are people doing this work that once they commit abuse, [they] are more likely than not to abuse again.”
Our review of state records reveals 8,986 Ohioans with disabilities complained of physical and sexual abuse over a five-year period.
Of those, 2,393 were substantiated, and, among them, 394 were added to the registry. Most were unresolved.
More than half of them, 211 to be exact, are on the registry for offenses related to sexual assault, verbal assault, physical assault and neglect.
Breakdown of offenses:
Abuse — physical: 119
Abuse — sexual: 35
Abuse — verbal: 11
Of those 211 individuals, 127 were convicted of a crime.
Our investigation also found alarming examples of abuse committed with little or no consequence.
In many cases, we uncovered abusers receive no jail or prison time but instead only probation. Some examples we found included:
Caregivers committing sexual assault, including a handful of criminal charges reduced with lower sentences and probation
A caregiver splitting the lip of a cerebral palsy victim but only sentenced to probation
A caregiver beating someone with a wooden spoon but only sentenced to probation
Case by case, a lack of accountability
One of these abuse victims, 20-year-old AnnaMae, is autistic and lives independently with the help of caregivers who come to her apartment.
AnnaMae’s family filed a police report, including disturbing cell phone video given to her family by a caregiver, that showed both of AnnaMae’s hands bound and tied, using the sleeves of her sweatshirt, as she screamed in distress.
Warning: The content of this video may be disturbing.
After we began asking questions about her case, the Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities sent us a statement that said it began its own investigation into the incident.
But like the vast majority of cases we found in our investigation, no one was charged, and the case was closed.
“There is no accountability,” said Joyce Thompson, AnnaMae’s mother. “To me that’s not even a restraint — that’s more like someone being held hostage or prisoner.”
In an emailed statement, the Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities said, “There will be no criminal charges, nor reporting of the incident to the abuser registry.”
The board did conclude, “This upsetting incident is an unapproved behavior support.”
We showed the same video to another caregiver, who News 5 Cleveland chose not to identify, who works with people with disabilities. She confirmed there are no rules or procedures that permit a person with disabilities to be restrained in that fashion.
In another case we uncovered, 20-year-old Charlie Segaard was residing in a state-operated facility in Tiffin, Ohio, when a caregiver choked him to the point of passing out, according to the police report.
Again, no charges were filed, and the caregiver has not been placed on the abuser registry despite five eyewitnesses who described the abuse to investigators.
“I have very vivid nightmares about him being passed out — it’s really hard,” said Heather Simpkins, Charlie’s mother.
His father, Benjamin Segaard, a former law enforcement officer with 22 years of experience investigating crimes, said Seneca County Prosecutor Derek DeVine refused to prosecute the case.
“This was a good, strong, case,” Benjamin Segaard said.
DeVine told News 5 Cleveland, “The investigation presented to our office did not provide sufficient evidence to prosecute.”
Even so, the Tiffin Developmental Center fired the employee and concluded the abuse “was substantiated,” according to police investigative reports.
DeVine insisted in an email to News 5 Cleveland that “the evidence needed to obtain a conviction is more than the Center needs to substantiate the allegation of abuse.”
But in a June 24, 2017 letter to the Ohio Highway Patrol investigator in the case, DeVine wrote “it is abundantly clear there is some evidence to support charging with a crime…the evidence would in all likelihood be insufficient to successfully prosecute.”
DeVine concluded via email, “We do not proceed with criminal charges unless we believe there is a reasonable chance of being successful at trial.”
In another instance of abuse we uncovered, cell phone video captured a caregiver verbally abusing a person with disabilities before raising his fist.
Warning: The content of this video may be disturbing.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Steven Szelagiewicz said at that point the video was turned off, but the abuser’s wife described her husband striking the victim with his hand.
The caregiver was sentenced to probation.
Szelagiewicz is strongly opposed to any efforts by state regulators to ease restrictions on abusers.
“It’s disturbing,” he said. “These are people who have abused the most vulnerable section of society. I think putting them back in a position where they will have access to them again, these types of victims that cannot defend themselves, is the opposite way that we should be going.”
Extent of abuse
Kirkman of Disability Rights Ohio said abuse of people with disabilities doesn’t just happen at their homes, but “in every setting.”
“It happens in institutions, it happens in state centers, it happens in small community-based homes because it’s a vulnerable population,” he said, “and because of system pressures, people are not getting the training they need.”
The DODD declined an on-camera interview to explain its proposed rule change or whether it would be reconsidered in the future.
Instead, it issued this statement via email:
The health and safety of people with developmental disabilities has been and always will be the top priority of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. Proposed changes to the Abuser Registry rule were intended to clarify the timelines that currently apply to each of the circumstances listed as good cause in the rule. The Department received only two comments during the rule’s clearance period, but became aware of concerns in the hours leading up to the hearing. Because we take safety so seriously and value the opinions of our stakeholders, the hearing was cancelled so the department could evaluate and consider input regarding the rule.