Feds Say State Office That Protects Disabled Has Conflict, Should Be Privatized
APRIL 8, 2016 6:57 PM
HARTFORD — The office charged with protecting the rights of Connecticut residents with disabilities is severely compromised by its ties to state government and politics and could lose its federal funding if it does not take immediate steps toward independence, a federal audit has concluded.
The review of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities noted a series of deeply seated conflicts of interest.
For example, the agency for years has considered requests from building owners to waive handicapped-access requirements in certain circumstances, and grants most of the waivers it sees. Yet, the agency is also charged with representing people who encounter difficulties over access to those same buildings.
The "entanglement with state responsibilities and state hiring and staffing structures undermines" the agency's ability to meet the federal advocacy mandates, the audit said. "The lack of structural safeguards [against political interference] limits its real and perceived abilities to pursue remedies of rights violations."
The vast majority of protection and advocacy offices across the county are private, nonprofit agencies.
The report by a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also raised concerns about the agency's executive director, Craig Henrici, a former Hamden mayor and state legislator who was appointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in July 2014. Henrici came in after then-Director James McGaughey retired after nearly 30 years.
The federal report noted that Henrici was tapped for the job with no input from the disability community.
And over the last two years, Henrici has not endeared himself to advocacy groups.
"When asked, [advocates] reported that Mr. Henrici has not participated meaningfully in the activities of the [disability] network," the report states.
Henrici said Friday in an interview that his focus is directed inward, on the morale and performance of his office, rather than on external advocacy and network building.
"I've testified before the legislature [in support of issues important to the disability community]. Have I gone to every ice-cream social? No."
But the federal regulators said they weren't talking about attending social events.
"As the leader of the P&A, the executive director is expected to implement the goals and priorities of the program and represent the P&A in meetings and public forums with other leaders of the disability community," the report states.
The office is charged with advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illness, physical disabilities and traumatic brain injuries, and those in vocational rehabilitation programs.
The agency must now either commit to becoming a private, nonprofit agency or, short of that, come up with a format in which the director and the members of the office's board are not solely appointed by the governor, and the board hires, evaluates, and fires, the executive director.
The state took the latter approach in its first draft of a correction action plan submitted last week to the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Henrici said Friday that a bill specifying the changes will be submitted to the legislature in January 2017.
State officials and advocates have known for years that the office was vulnerable to charges of conflict of interest.
In 2012, McGaughey, the former director, and other advocates had to rally to defeat a proposal by the Malloy administration to merge the protection and advocacy office with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. In 2013, McGaughey and several board members went to the state Office of Policy and Management with a plan similar to the one the state is now proposing to the feds. But OPM did not support those changes in 2013.
Advocates are anxiously waiting to see how the federal authorities respond to the corrective plan. The state would be given time, perhaps a year or more, to make the transition if the plan is approved.
The office has proposed to shed most of the duties that don't involve advocating for the rights of disabled clients. For example, the P&A staff for years has sat in on sterilization hearings in probate court, not to represent the appeal rights of the person who might be sterilized, but to make sure the hearing was conducted according to state statutes. From now on, the agency will only advocate for the rights of the individual.
The federal government in the late 1970s established funding for a protection and advocacy office, a related disability council, and a university research center in every state and U.S. territory.
The office employs 36 state workers, including lawyers, abuse investigators, and caseworkers. It has contracts with legal-aid organizations to represent clients in court. It has a state budget of about $3 million annually, and receives about $1.5 million in federal funds each year.
Henrici said in an interview Friday that he does not want the agency to become a private, nonprofit organization.
"I feel if we privatize, we'll have less staff and less money to serve people with disabilities. The state gives us $3 million, and we have this building, with heat and air conditioning. If we go private, we go from a service agency to a money-raising agency," Henrici said.
A spokesman for Malloy said forming a nonprofit group is among the options.
The state is working with federal authorities to "explore potential scenarios, including the possibility of nonprofit status, to determine the best possible outcome for the agency moving forward," said spokesman Chris McClure.
Fifty of the 57 federally funded protection and advocacy functions across the country are private nonprofit groups. Connecticut is one of only five states that still have a state agency performing this work. All five are under pressure to convert to an independent structure.
"Our experience is that nonprofit P&As are often in a better position to secure additional funding, through government contracts, and legal fees," said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.
He said fundraising is part of the process, "but the freedom and ability to run the program as you see fit is a worthwhile tradeoff,'' Decker said.
Molly Cole is executive director of the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities. The council receives about $700,000 a year in federal money — funding that is part of the grant to the protection and advocacy office. If the office loses its federal funding, the council would, too.
The council funds youth-leadership conferences, anti-bullying efforts, employment, housing, and transportation programs and more.
Cole said she and other advocates are concerned about the state's response to the federal findings. She said the current format has to change.
"It's an impossible task" for the office to perform its state duties while remaining independent and nimble enough to sue the state over civil- and disability-rights issues, Cole said.
"What they are asked to do in state statutes is in direct conflict with their federal mandates," she said.
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