Concerned lawmakers vowed Monday to launch an immediate, bipartisan investigation into the deaths of disabled people living in group homes funded and licensed by the state Department of Mental Retardation.
Calls for an inquiry came from both Republicans and Democrats in response to a Courant investigation that found evidence of neglect, staff error or other questionable circumstances in one in every 10 deaths that occurred in group homes over the past decade.
"I want a thorough investigation so that people won't die like this anymore and so that people, especially families, can get the information they need when a loved one dies," said Sen. Judith Freedman, R-Westport, the co-chairwoman of the Program Review and Investigations Committee.
On Monday, Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven - co-chairwoman of the public health committee, which oversees DMR - called for a joint public hearing with Freedman's committee as early as this month, to examine issues raised by the newspaper's stories. The unusual call for an immediate hearing was an indication of the seriousness of the issues to lawmakers, whose regular legislative session does not begin until February.
Particularly troubling, Freedman and other legislators said, was the revelation that DMR investigates itself when clients die and then refuses to release its written findings, even to next of kin. The stories also detailed how autopsies of DMR patients are sometimes done at teaching hospitals and not the state medical examiner's office.
"I was shocked to see someone's body was sent to UConn for an autopsy. I can't imagine a family not knowing what happened to their son or daughter," Freedman said. "When you find one questionable case, you don't turn your head. You dig deeper to see if there's a problem."
Freedman was referring to the case of Lisa Barry, who died in a DMR respite care facility in 1998. Her parents questioned whether the 21-year-old had been given the medications to control her seizures, but that question was never answered because the pathologist who conducted the autopsy at the University of Connecticut Medical Center failed to draw enough blood.
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin B. Sullivan, D-West Hartford, and House Speaker Moira K. Lyons, D-Stamford, expressed similar concerns Monday and said the legislature would react swiftly.
"We're able and willing to bring this to any level of scrutiny we need to," Sullivan said. "I think it's a very serious problem."
A spokesman for Gov. John G. Rowland said Monday the governor would "support" a review of group home deaths by the Program Review and Investigations Committee, but stopped short of calling for one himself.
"The stories raised several issues. Most importantly, the need for DMR to be more open with the review of these deaths," the governor's spokesman Dean Pagani said. "The commissioner has said he will take action to ensure that occurs and the governor expects that to happen."
Over the past month DMR Commissioner Peter O'Meara has written two letters to group home providers and parents of clients warning them about The Courant's investigation and assuring them that DMR "has undertaken an extensive review of our systems and policies."
O'Meara goes on to say that based on that review, "I am very comfortable that Connecticut has one of the most comprehensive and effective oversight systems in the country."
DMR has assigned a person in each of the agency's six regions to answer questions from parents about deaths or abuse complaints. The agency also recently hired an ombudsman, more than a year after legislators approved the position.
Some lawmakers suggested Monday that the state appoint an advocate for the mentally retarded who would have the same subpoena powers as the state's child advocate. That person would be responsible for conducting investigations into deaths and allegations of neglect, and the findings would be available to the public.
Others said state agencies such as DMR simply should not be allowed to claim confidentiality in death investigations by citing state statutes intended to protect the privacy of clients.
"The right to privacy is the client's right, not the commissioner's or the agency's," said William Curry, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who called on the state to investigate DMR. "They should not be hiding their shortcomings behind these laws. This report describes one of the saddest violations of the public's trust we've ever seen in Connecticut."
Sullivan agreed, and said the legislature will review its confidentiality laws if this is how they're being used.
"It makes no sense to me that mortality review records are confidential," Sullivan said. "I think we've made a mistake historically if that's the case."
Other lawmakers said they want to see more than just an investigation of deaths or public disclosure laws. Issues such as funding, staffing levels and training must also take priority, according to Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia , a ranking member of the legislature's Public Health Committee.
"Who is minding the store here? We need to make sure there is enough oversight of DMR and of the private corporations so that these deaths don't keep occurring."