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Police ignored, mishandled sex assaults reported by disabled

Giant palm trees stand at the main gate of the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses about 500 patients.
Giant palm trees stand at the main gate of the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses about 500 patients.
At Sonoma center, caregiver was cleared of abuse – and then molested second patient

Broken Shield Sex Abuse 042Sexual abuse cases reviewed

Earlier this year, Leslie Morrison, head of the investigations unit at Disability Rights California, examined dozens of case files in which a patient accused a center employee of sexual abuse from 2009 to mid-2012. Morrison performed the review at the request of the state Department of Developmental Services. She said these cases involved only patients capable of speaking and therefore able to report an assault.

Disability Rights, a protection and advocacy organization, has access to full patient files under state and federal law. Many of these records are confidential, but California Watch was able to obtain through other sources some of the documents provided to Disability Rights.

California Watch’s parent organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting, has sued the state for additional abuse records that can shed more light on these and other cases. A superior court judge ruled that the state should open its records, but the state is appealing.

Morrison said she found 36 cases in which victims likely should have received a rape kit medical exam and interview with a trained nurse. But, she said, the Office of Protective Services investigations were incomplete and at times deeply flawed.

“We’re not sure they have the training to do these very delicate, sensitive interviews,” Morrison said.

Disability Rights argues that outside law enforcement and forensic nurses – who have years of experience interviewing victims and identifyingphysical evidence – should have taken over the institutions’ sex crime cases.

“You’re better off referring it to the specially trained people whose job it is to do that and only that,” Morrison said.



The Department of Developmental Services now agrees, according to its written statement.

Gov. Jerry Brown in September signed legislation requiring that the centers report alleged sex assaults against patients to outside law enforcement. The new law, SB 1522, “will ensure developmental center investigators and outside law enforcement agencies work collaboratively to investigate unexplained injuries or allegations of abuse,” the statement said.

The centers have a long history of sex abuse against patients, which California Watch reported in stories earlier this year.

In one case from early 2000, police records show, a female patient at the Sonoma Developmental Center accused a male caregiver of sexually assaulting her during a bath. The institution then assigned two men to bathe the patient, even though the facility employed many female caregivers.

Both caregivers allegedly raped her on July 6, 2000, during bathing.

Developmental center officials did not report details about the assaults to the Office of Protective Services. Four days after the second alleged rape, the police commander at the Sonoma facility received an anonymous tip about the incident. Officials launched an investigation, but no arrests were made.

Early struggles in Jennifer’s care

Few cases are more disturbing than that of Jennifer, the former Sonoma Developmental Center patient who suffers from bipolar disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, in addition to severe intellectual disabilities, the patient’s medical records show.

For most of Jennifer’s childhood, her mother said, doctors struggled to pinpoint what drove her daughter’s outbursts. When angered, she would scream and slap herself and anyone else within reach. Other times, she was sweet, even overjoyed when surrounded by her parents and siblings, her mother said.

Jennifer lived peacefully enough in one group home until she was about 14. Her behavior turned unstable, and the teenager was regularly moved among privately run homes in the community that proved ill-equipped to care for her.

“She started (going) from group home to group home to group home,” her mother said in an interview. California Watch does not identify victims of sexual assault or their immediate family members.

Patient advocates had told her mother that the best way to diagnose and treat her daughter’s behavioral conditions would be to admit her to an institution. She would be observed at all times, they told her; developmental center staff members are far more experienced at prescribing drugs to tame disorders.

Her mother said she was wary and resisted the advice – initially. But she also was exhausted from years of strain overseeing Jennifer’s care without a complete diagnosis. She relented in 2002, and Jennifer, then 27, moved into the Sonoma Developmental Center.

“To have her on the right course of medication, that was the only reason to have her there,” Jennifer’s mother said.

At the time, the Sonoma center housed about 850 patients and was the nation’s largest institution for the profoundly developmentally disabled. Built more than a 100 years ago in wine country, it is an open campus, flush with green lawns and walking paths.

From outside, Sonoma’s residences resemble single-family homes more than dormitories, featuring front stoops and yards. Patients lounge together on porch swings.

Sonoma administrators assigned Jennifer to the Corcoran Unit, a peach-colored building tucked in the center’s far eastern end. Its red tile roof is covered with dead leaves and branches from the towering oak tree that shades the residence’s main entrance.

Everything was fine for a few years, the mother said. Her daughter came home many weekends. At times, however, her mother noticed injuries.

Bruises were not necessarily alarming. Jennifer would occasionally hurt herself. At one point, Jennifer cut her scalp badly. The Sonoma caregivers explained that she had been banging her head against the wall, her mother said. The center put Jennifer in her own bedroom, padded the walls and fitted her with a helmet.

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