A new grand jury report on the March fire that killed four residents of a Hamilton County group home offers some meaningful recommendations to protect the safety of New York’s developmentally disabled citizens, the New York Civil Liberties Union said today. The report also offers the first detailed look at the events that led up to the tragic fire.

“The grand jury’s report provides a tragic glimpse into the horrors that these people experienced in their final moments,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “It also provides the state with several important recommendations to prevent a tragedy like this one from ever happening again. Two recommendations are particularly important. New York must ensure that the design and construction of group homes is adequate to protect the highly vulnerable populations that live in them, and it must assign fire safety code enforcement to fire safety professionals, as opposed to employees in the state’s Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities who do not have the training and expertise necessary to fill such an important role.”

Several residents of the Wells group home were plaintiffs in the Willowbrook case, the NYCLU’s 1972 landmark class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 6,000 people with developmental disabilities who resided at the notorious Willowbrook State School on Staten Island and who, as a result of that suit, were released from Willowbrook and placed in group homes statewide. The court order in that class action lawsuit requires New York State to provide services for and protect all members of the Willowbrook Class.

Of the nine group home residents in the Hamilton County home, five were Willowbrook Class members. Of those five, two were killed and one was flown by med flight helicopter to a local hospital. Two other residents of the home were also killed. The residents of the group home were people who could not evacuate themselves.

The grand jury’s report calls for group homes to adopt building code and fire safety standards appropriate to congregate care setting rather than standards that pertain to private residences. Had the Wells home been held to more stringent standards, the grand jury report states, it would have had either an attic sprinkler system or a fire retardant roof. “Had that been the case we believe it highly probably that, at a minimum, the progress of the fire would have been substantially slowed making time for a successful and full evacuation of residents and staff,” the report states.

The grand jury also called for oversight over fire safety to be assigned to fire safety professionals. The report illustrates deficiencies in how fire drills at the Wells home were conducted. Three residents of the home died after they were near an exit but reversed course and went back inside. “We submit that this demonstrates the very significant challenge presented in evacuating individuals who do not have self preservation skills. We also submit that these circumstances were reasonably forseeable.” Fire safety in this group home and in the thousands others like it are reviewed by employees who monitor the quality of care provided to residents. They have little training and “cannot in any sense be considered experts in the field,” the report says.

“New York State must learn from the tragedy of the Wells group home fire and act immediately to protect residents in the thousands of group homes like it across the state,” Lieberman said. “In addition to having a moral obligation to protect New Yorkers with special needs, New York also has a court-ordered obligation to provide services for and protect members of the Willowbrook Class.”

In 1972, the NYCLU filed a historic civil rights lawsuit to challenge the inhumane institutional conditions suffered by the residents of the infamous Willowbrook State School. These rights include protection from harm, a safe, clean and appropriate physical environment, high quality community residential and treatment services in the least restrictive setting and high quality case management and advocacy services.

More than 35 years later, the NYCLU and other advocates still actively monitor New York State to ensure that it is complying with its obligations on behalf of the members of the Willowbrook Class.

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