Bill Proposes Ombudsman to Protect Rhode Islanders With Developmental Disabilities

By Gina Macris

An independent ombudsman who would represent the safety, health and other interests of adults with developmental disabilities in Rhode Island has been proposed by state Rep. Eileen S. Naughton, (D-Warwick).

Naughton filed a bill that would establish the state government position following the death of Barbara A. Annis, 70, in February.  Annis suffered massive infection that developed after a fracture of a thigh bone went untreated for several days. 

 In the immediate aftermath of Annis’ death, the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council called for legislation creating an independent advocacy office like the one Naughton’s bill would set up.

“We have a child advocate as well as an advocate for the elderly and the mentally ill, but none for the developmentally disabled,” Naughton said in a statement April 8. If enacted, the bill would establish the ombudsman’s office within the state Department of Administration.

“We’ve taken great strides in our efforts to make Rhode Island society more inclusive for the developmentally disabled. The next step is to have an independent advocate to ensure that the health, safety, welfare and rights of the developmentally disabled are more secure,” she said. The bill is 2016-H 8038.

Naughton’s proposal comes as the state’s attention has been focused on issues affecting persons with developmental disabilities in two ways:

  • Hearings in U.S. District Court about the state’s compliance with a consent decree that would transform how Rhode Island provides inclusive employment and other services to persons with developmental disabilities.
  • · Multiple investigations involving conditions at more than 200 group homes for persons with developmental disabilities following Annis’ death.

The state Attorney General’s Office and State Police launched criminal investigations as a result of Annis’ death Feb. 15 at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence. Five staff members of the state-run group home where she lived have been placed on paid leave.

The home, College Park Apartments on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Providence, has been closed by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), and the remaining 14 residents have been moved elsewhere.

The Rhode Island Disability Law Center has opened an investigation into the welfare of Annis’ former housemates.

In addition, BHDDH, in cooperation with the state Department of Health, last month began unannounced inspections of 269 private and state-run group homes.