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Joined by Riverhead family, Zeldin calls for reform of group homes

For months, 18-year-old Raymond Berrios suffered from anxiety, heart palpitations, trouble breathing and loss of appetite.

His parents and doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital suspected it was gastrointestinal, though the dozens of tests he underwent were inconclusive.

In February, a visit with a radiologist revealed Raymond had suffered a posterior sternoclavicular fracture — a rare event that occurs most commonly from car accidents, football injuries and falls. 

As his mother, Maureen, pieced together what could have happened to her son — he wasn’t in a car crash, didn’t play high-impact sports and hadn’t fallen — she traced his symptoms back to May 2018, when Raymond was “restrained” by an assistant manager at a Lido Beach group home.

“I never knew the impact of what happened to him until nine months later,” Ms. Berrios, of Riverhead, explained in an interview Friday.

After the incident, she and her husband, Norbert, documented bruising and scratches that eventually healed. The assistant manager, Ms. Berrios said, was moved to a different facility, but not suspended to her knowledge and is not currently facing any criminal charges.

Raymond, who is on the autism spectrum and has a rare genetic condition known as Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, has lived at the Brookville Center For Children’s Services since 2009.

“We were sold on the idea that in the long run, he would have more opportunities, to become a more independent individual, to be with peers and in the community,” his mother said.

Instead, the alleged assault has become part of a $50 million lawsuit the family filed against the facility in 2016.

The family claims in court documents that staff at the facility “routinely failed” to report incidents, including a sexual assault, and neglected Raymond’s medical and nutritional needs, citing incidents dating back to 2013.

In one instance, following foot surgery, staff failed to keep Raymond’s cast clean and dry, leading to an infection and five different casts in a six-week period.

In 2014, Raymond reported a possible sexual assault to staff at the center and was brought to his pediatrician and then the emergency room the following day.

An exam revealed bruising in the shape of a handprint on his inner thigh and the doctor removed a “grey/blue object” from his genital area, according to the legal filing.

Raymond Berrios

Eighteen hours passed until his parents were notified — and 24 hours elapsed before Nassau County police were notified, according to the lawsuit. Their investigation found that Raymond had been sexually assaulted at the facility by an unknown person — a staff member or visitor — but no charges were filed, court documents said.

The New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People With Special Needs, established in 2013 to protect against abuse in group homes, investigated the incident in 2014. According to the court filing, the Justice Center report determined that the delay may have contributed to the inability to collect physical evidence in the case.

The Justice Center has jurisdiction over more than 1 million individuals receiving services statewide, according to its website. The center also maintains a 24-hour toll-free hotline seven days a week for receiving reports of allegations of abuse and neglect and employs investigators and a special prosecutor to investigate the complaints and pursue administrative sanctions or prosecution against staff found responsible for misconduct.

Ms. Berrios says Raymond’s experience is reflective of systemic issues that affect people with developmental disabilities who reside in group homes. She said she fears for the children who may not be able to communicate verbally.

Last week, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) joined the Berrios family alongside another victim’s family at Suffolk County District Court in Central Islip to call for reforms in group homes — and how agencies respond to and investigate cases of abuse and neglect.

Maria Barouch explained that her 24-year-old son, Joseph, who has autism, fractured his neck after he was forced to walk naked on a treadmill at an East Islip facility.

Mr. Zeldin said these incidents are all too common and called on the New York State Justice Center to take action.

“The Center has a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable, and it is imperative that reforms are implemented immediately to prevent future cases of abuse suffered by individuals with disabilities,” he said. “In addition to finally securing justice for individuals with disabilities, it must take every possible measure to ensure abuses in these cases are not only investigated, but that systemic reforms are implemented.”

He’s advocating that group homes install security cameras in common areas, improve administrative discipline, strengthen prosecutorial options and increase staff education, training and vetting.

Mr. Zeldin also noted that low pay in these occupations causes high turnover and inexperienced staff.

In a statement, Justice Center spokesperson Christine Buttigieg said the agency conducts a thorough review of every allegation of abuse and neglect reported to them.

“Every allegation is also referred to the local district attorney for an independent review,” she said.

“The Justice Center has spoken to Representative Zeldin’s staff and has, on numerous occasions, offered to meet with him directly to address his concerns. It is unfortunate the congressman seems more interested in grabbing headlines and attention than directly engaging with the agency he voted to create.”

In December 2018, Mr. Zeldin and New York representatives Peter King, Elise Stefanik and Tom Reed sent a letter to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation into the New York State Justice Center’s failure to protect individuals with disabilities.

In a response this May, assistant attorney general Stephen Boyd wrote that the agency would “carefully consider the information in your letter in determining whether to open an investigation of those facilities under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.”

The Berrios’ attorney, Christohper Shishko of Guercio & Guercio in Farmingdale, said Monday that the Justice Center is a “piece of the puzzle,” that should be advocating on behalf of parents and families. “So that when abuse and neglect happen, there’s some type of penalty, repercussions. That’s just not happening,” he said.

Mr. Shishko said that in response to investigations into Raymond’s case, the Justice Center simply sent a letter confirming the allegation was substantiated, but took no further action. “There’s no teeth. If they want to pursue it further, I believe they can. They have the authority,” he said.

Officials at the Lido Beach group home did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“All of this is about accountability,” Ms. Berrios said. “If no one is held accountable, nothing will ever change.”

Raymond, described by his mother as an outgoing teenager who loves people, music and politics, is still recuperating at the group home after undergoing surgery to correct his injuries in March. Ms. Berrios said the family is working to move Raymond into an adult facility now that he’s 18.

“There aren’t a lot of options for children,” she noted, explaining why he has remained a resident at the Brookville center. “Why should he have to uproot his whole life, but the people that caused him [to suffer] can stay there, continue to earn a living and abuse other individuals?”

She ultimately wants what any mother would: to see her son live a peaceful, happy life.

“He’s resilient in many ways,” Ms. Berrios said. “But there needs to be change. No other family should have to go through what we went through, what our son endured.”

Top Caption: Congressman Zeldin at a press conference last month. (Courtesy Photo)

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