Judge orders NYS to pay $1.5M to victim of state-run Bronx group home abuse

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In February, a judge approved a $1.5 million settlement from the State of New York to M.F., a developmentally disabled resident of a New York State-run group home who experienced serial abuse by caretakers.
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In February, a judge approved a $1.5 million settlement from New York state to M.F., a developmentally disabled resident of a state-run group home who experienced serial abuse by caretakers.

While in residence from 2004 to 2019 at the Union Avenue IRA in the Bronx, run by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), M.F. was subjected to constant abuse by staff members. In a recent lawsuit, Union Avenue staff testified that M.F. was constantly covered in bruises throughout their stay, and staff also witnessed colleagues subjecting M.F. to physical abuse, inhumane confinement and forced feedings. In spite of the heinous abuse they witnessed, not one staff member or supervisor reported it to law enforcement, the state’s abuse hotline or M.F.’s family.

The lawsuit also shows that the state failed M.F. by turning a blind eye to reports showing systemic abuse at Union Avenue and failing to train staff and supervisors on incident reporting. As a result of these failures, a judge approved a $1.5 million settlement, a substantial sum for these kinds of settlements.

“What happened to M.F. was unspeakable,” said Ilann Maazel, of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, who represented the plaintiff. “The fact that this abuse occurred in a state facility makes it even more egregious. This settlement sends the message that abuse of people with disabilities should never be tolerated.”

This is not the first-time abuse has taken place at the facility. In 2019, New York state settled a $6 million lawsuit with three plaintiffs who lived at the facility, where staff allegedly punched, kicked and spat on residents.

M.F., 64, who is non-verbal and has developmental delays, resided at the Union Avenue facility from 2004 to October 2019 when OPWDD took control of the house.

Following her mother’s death, M.F.’s sister, S.R., became her guardian. However, she worked a lot and could not provide adequate care. So, in 2004, she placed M.F. in the Union Avenue facility.

According to the complaint, the Union Avenue facility was supposed to be a safe haven for the disabled, but “it was a place of cruelty and indifference.”

M.F. suffered bruises all over her body for several years, including on her stomach, breasts, legs, buttocks and arms. The bruising was big, purple, black, some looked like “footmarks” and one left an entire breast looking like a black clot.

“Everyone at Union Avenue knew M.F.’s bruises were caused by physical abuse,” the complaint says. “Staff believed that someone was abusing M.F. physically. One supervisor saw a bruise that it looked like M.F. was kicked in the stomach.”

She was also kicked, punched, smacked and imprisoned in her room and forced fed until she vomited. However, the staff did not document the abuse, investigate it or report it to the authorities or M.F.’s family. When staff told their supervisors, the reports were buried or told to be quiet.

Staff members Tiffany Teams and Sharnell Tucker abused her for years and others did nothing to intervene, according to the complaint.

“Everyday M.F. will have big ass bruises on her stomach and arms,” said Laylee Gonzalez, a direct care staff member. Gonzalez said that those in charge tried to cover up the abuse.

Ultimately, oversight at the facility failed for several years.

“For years, OPWDD’s Division of Quality Improvement found that Union Avenue was hopelessly mismanaged, failed to provide residents basic required services, endangered residents health with botched medical care, failed to track and prevent incidents of abuse and neglect and failed to protect residents from harm,” the complaint says.

Reach Jason Cohen at jcohen@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

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