Jill Daly has lost count of the times her son has visited home for the weekend, covered in bruises.
Tommy, 29, is autistic, has significant cognitive delays, and is nonverbal, so he is unable to tell his mother what happens at the various group homes where he has lived over the last decade.
What’s frightening is that the state-paid workers who care for Tommy are either unable or unwilling to tell her.
“Look at these,” she says, swiping through the cellphone photos of injuries her son sustained in prior placements.
In one, brick-red marks fan over the back of his upper arm. In another, blue and yellow bruises peek through the dark hairs of his pale lower leg. In others: His ear is swollen; the top of his nose is cut; his torso is banged up.
“This just breaks my heart,” says Daly, 54, who lives in Glen Riddle, in Delaware County; her son’s group home is in another Pennsylvania county. His condition requires 24/7 monitoring.
When she has complained to different agencies that oversee Tommy’s care, says Daly, their investigations usually conclude that her worries of abuse are “unfounded.”
Daly doesn’t trust dialing 911 for help, because the last time she called, the responding officer took the agency’s word for it that Tommy’s injuries were self-inflicted.
But for a while afterward, at least the bruising stopped.
“What does that tell you?” she says angrily, her brown eyes glistening with tears.
Daly is a tiny, vivacious woman whose mouth and jaw are disfigured from the aggressive head-and-neck cancer she has battled since 2010. The disease has now spread, and in July she will undergo more surgery to help slow the inevitable. While her son’s care is stable in his current placement, she fears for his well-being while she’s too sick to monitor him for injuries.
I wish I were shocked by Daly’s tales of caregiver indifference and worse. But allegations like hers are rife among families of vulnerable adults whose lives unfold behind closed doors.
I heard scores of their stories while researching last December’s “Falling Off the Cliff,” my four-part series about adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the aging families who will look out for them until they themselves draw last breaths.
They were hoping the series would prompt local law enforcement agencies to be more responsive to families’ suspicions of abuse, but the media can do only so much.
That’s why I am asking readers to show their support for House Bill 1124, which would allow Pennsylvania’s attorney general to investigate allegations of abuse of dependent-care adults. The current legislative session ends June 30, so your support is urgent.
Currently – and bizarrely – the AG has jurisdiction to prosecute care providers for neglect but not for abuse. That leaves families like Daly’s with no recourse if local law enforcement agencies don’t take their complaints seriously.
HB 1124 would amend Section 2713 of the state’s Crime Code to expand the AG’s jurisdiction to include abuse, giving desperate families another option for justice. The bill also expands the definitions of abuse and neglect to allow law enforcement to intervene long before either results in injury.
Joe Grace, spokesman for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, says that if the legislation passes, Shapiro would “absolutely support it.”
The bill would apply to not just people with disabilities but any adult, including the elderly, who is care-dependent.
Your support is critical: HB 1124, which passed the House unanimously in December, has been stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee since January. The spring legislative session ends June 30 and there’s no guarantee the bill will get a hearing in the fall session.
If not, HB 1124 will die, says Rep. Jim Cox (R., Berks/Lancaster), who sponsored the bill.
“The Senate has a huge caseload, and I am not blaming the Judiciary chair” – State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) — says Cox. “But this would give families a much-needed alternative for justice.”
Greenleaf spokesman Aaron Zappia says the senator supports the bill in theory.
“We realize it’s needed and called for, but the senator wants to be sure it doesn’t have the unintended consequence” of punishing an innocent family caregiver who unknowingly harms a family member in his or her care, Zappia says.
Fair enough – except that HB 1124 already addresses that concern, right in its first paragraph:
“… It is the legislative intent in enacting this act that a distinction should be recognized between intentional acts and negligent acts,” it reads, “particularly when this act is enforced against family members of a care-dependent person who are not trained to provide care.”
Sometimes, concedes disability advocate Marianne Roche, “you may have a family member who is not equipped to handle the care of a loved one, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
“Some of the worst cases of abuse have been perpetrated by people against their own most vulnerable members,” says Roche, former director of developmental disability services for Montgomery County. “You don’t extend special privileges to an abuser just because they’re family. The 14th Amendment” – equal protection of the law – “extends to everyone.”
Passage of HB 1124 would put a bow on that. And it might give peace of mind to Daly, whose days of caring for her son are numbered by her illness.
“I worry every day about what the quality of care will be like for Tommy after I’m gone,” says Daly, whose eighty-something parents and two adult children love and fret about Tommy as much as she does.
She wants caregivers to see in Tommy what she sees: an energetic, curious young man whose laughter can fill a room. An eager guy who enjoys the zoo, cars, magazines, and watching TV game shows. A “Christmas in July” type who loves parties with lots of balloons, presents, and his beverage of choice – Diet Coke.
“He deserves protection,” Daly says.
We all do.
To support HB 1124, ask these local members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to call a hearing before June 30: Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, 215-657-7700, firstname.lastname@example.org, @SenGreenleaf; Sen. Daylin Leach, 610-768-4200, email@example.com, @daylinleach; and Sen. Lawrence Farnese, 215-952-3121, firstname.lastname@example.org, @larryfarnese.