Legislative Audit Council to investigate allegations of abuse at Disabilities and Special Needs

Allegations that some residents at state homes for the mentally and physically disabled have been abused will be investigated by the Legislative Audit Council.

The issue

The Legislative Audit Council last week approved a requested audit of the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs that will address allegations of client abuse raised in 20 questions submitted June 7 by three lawmakers.

“Allegations are just allegations but that's why we have the audit council,” said former state Sen. David L. Thomas.

The concerns were raised by people including family members and facility workers, he said.

“There have been a lot of questions about that agency. We were dealing with allegations and we want to get them off the table,” Thomas said.

The audit request, signed by five lawmakers, is dated May 23. In a follow-up request dated June 7, Thomas, who subsequently lost a bid for re-election, and two other lawmakers submitted a list of 20 questions asking the LAC to address allegations of abuse at Department of Disabilities and Special Needs residential facilities.

“In DDSN residential facilities and county DDSN group homes, how severe and widespread are client abuse and neglect?” states question No. 4.

Other questions seek a response to allegations of improper use of physical restraints and theft of client funds and personal property.

The LAC approved the audit request in a meeting last week in Charleston.

State Reps. Jim Harrison and Rita Allison also signed the letter seeking answers from the LAC about the allegations at DDSN. Harrison, who is retiring as a lawmaker to take a job as a state code commissioner, said he had no specific information about client abuse at the agency. Allison, a Republican from Spartanburg, deferred to Harrison and Thomas on the 20 questions in the June 7 letter that seek answers to the allegations about DDSN.

State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, one of the five lawmakers who signed the original audit request, said he was told of the allegations by lawmakers who have received complaints from constituents about some DDSN facilities. The audit was approved as a way of shining a light on the allegations to prove or disprove them.

“The audit process works well,” he said.

LAC Director Perry Simpson said his staff would contact the trio who submitted the 20 questions and ask for more specifics on the issues and allegations raised. He said that the audit will take up to nine months.

Eva Ravenel of Charleston, a member of the DDSN Commission, declined to comment on the upcoming audit and referred questions to Director Beverly Buscemi, who could not be reached.

Agency spokeswoman Lois Park Mole said the audit is a routine follow-up to one done a few years ago. As for the questions raised about whether there is client abuse at DDSN, she said: “It doesn't say that this is happening. The work of the Legislative Audit Council will be to review the validity of accusations that are made.”

At DDSN, the health, safety and welfare of clients is job No. 1, she said.

DDSN serves more than 32,000 people who have intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. About 85 percent of those served live at home or with family, compared to 52 percent nationally, the agency said in its latest accountability report.

The department has 1,900 employees. Its residential centers providing 24-hour care include the Coastal Center in Ladson as well as the Midlands Center, Pee Dee Center and Whitten Center.

The agency ranks 13th nationally in a study published this year by United Cerebral Palsy that measures ability to create meaningful and community-inclusive lives for residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to the accountability report.

Last spring, the department conducted a series of eight “stakeholder” sessions including family members, provider staff and advocates.

“Stakeholders generally believe that the DDSN system works well,” the report states.

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