Sunday, February 16, 2003

Ohio ponders tough law for abuse or neglect of mentally retarded

By Shelley Davis
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - A bill that would crack down on people who abuse or neglect the mentally retarded was introduced in committee this week and is expected to move rapidly through the General Assembly.

The bill, being heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would stiffen penalties against people who fail to report abuse and neglect of the mentally retarded. It would also allow mentally retarded victims to videotape their testimony or use an interpreter to help them in the courtroom.

Such moves are designed to make the laws protecting the mentally retarded similar to child endangering laws. Sen. Bob Spada, D-Parma Heights, sponsor of the bill, said the changes are needed to send a signal to abusers that they will be punished.

"There are many problems in the system - people don't report abuse or neglect quickly, and sometimes not at all," Spada said. "I think it's a terrible situation when somebody takes advantage of someone who can't take care of themselves."

The bill adopts measures recommended by a 17-member task force appointed by Gov. Bob Taft last year. Taft appointed the task force after a Cincinnati Enquirer investigation revealed 80 to 120 mentally retarded people each year die from abuse, neglect or other preventable causes.

The Enquirer also found that caregivers who abuse mentally retarded people are rarely punished. In fact, sometimes they are paid to leave institutions when they are suspected of abuse.

Spada noted that it's tough to keep good workers when they are typically paid fast-food wages. "I think part of the problem is sometimes you don't get the highest caliber of people willing to work for the wages being paid," he said.

He expects little or no opposition to the bill.

"For most Ohioans, it might not be on their radar screen,'' Spada said. "But if you had a relative who was mentally retarded and found out they were a victim of crime, you would probably be more appalled than if you found out the same thing about a relative who could take care of himself."

Rep. Jeff Wagner, R-Sycamore, said he thinks the measure is a reasonable solution to the problems in the system. "The need for it was uncovered last year as we saw some gaps. This bill can definitely address those," he said.

The task force, made up of judges, prosecutors, police and county officials, worked with the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation on the recommendations.

The bill also makes it easier for suspected abusers to be placed on an Abuser Registry, an Internet list meant to identify employees that have abused or neglected mentally retarded victims and stop them from working in the system.

So far, the registry - which lawmakers approved with great fanfare in 2000 - names seven people.

The bill in some cases would allow names to be placed on the registry, even before people are found guilty in a criminal or civil trial. It would also allow employees who engage in sexual relationships or create a substantial risk to the health and safety of individuals in their care to be placed on the registry.

Police officers who work with mentally retarded victims have said it is difficult to convict workers accused of crimes. They blame prosecutors for shying away from cases involving mentally retarded victims.

Many aspects of the bill are modeled after child abuse laws already in place, said Greg White, Lorain County prosecutor and chairman of the task force.

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