A New York state-run home for the severely disabled is referred to by staffers as the "Bronx Zoo," and, for decades, has been run as a "sadistic group home where its employees perpetrate unspeakable physical and psychological abuse," according to families of three residents who filed a federal lawsuit this week. Several of the most abused victims were women.
"Staff call this place the 'Bronx Zoo,' but animals in the Bronx Zoo are treated much better," the complaint argues.
The suit alleges that state employees at Union Avenue IRA in the Bronx gave three residents "black eyes, punched them, pulled their hair, spit in their faces, shoved them... kicked them, smashed their heads into walls, withheld food from them, showered them in cold water... gave them the wrong medications, and subjected them to other horrific abuse and neglect."
The three residents, identified only by their initials to protect their identities, are all non-verbal, severely disabled adults, who have been in residential care virtually all of their lives. All three are women. Two have lived at Union Avenue IRA since the 90s.
The families of the residents questioned that something might be amiss for some time. One of the women tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease in 2004, even though she is legally incompetent to consent to sex. In the summer 2014, all three plaintiffs were allegedly taken to the hospital for black eyes.
During visits, family members noticed mysterious bruises. One of the residents, according to the complaint, "was taken to the hospital for unexplained or inadequately explained injuries at least a dozen times," including a laceration on her mouth "that required six stitches to close." The State of New York's Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) told the woman's family that she fell.
"These families have felt just helpless and at times, terrified," the plaintiffs' attorney, Ilann Maazel, tells Broadly. "When you send your loved one to a facility, you're trusting them, you're hoping they're safe, but you can't protect them."
An anonymous whistleblower wrote a letter to the state, outlining the horrors he or she witnessed and adding that the abuses had already been reported to superiors at the OPWDD, but nothing had been done.
According to the complaint, the "whistleblower wrote that he or she 'reported every incident and was told not to listen to what I was taught in training class because it would label me as a snitch and that I should keep my mouth shut.'" Even after the whistleblower's letter was recieved, according to court papers, the abuse continued. Finally the state opened an investigation, which confirmed the abuse that the whistleblower alleged.
"Staff were at best unqualified and poorly trained and at worst sadistic and barbarous," Maazel writes in the suit, "Yet they were given virtually total control over the lives of profoundly vulnerable disabled group home residents."
In a statement, the OPWDD told Broadly, "Any abuse of the individuals in our care is completely unacceptable. In response to a number of allegations made in 2014, OPWDD referred the matter to the Justice Center which conducted a full investigation into the allegations. OPWDD immediately placed the accused employees on administrative leave, is taking disciplinary action against those found responsible and is implementing comprehensive program review to ensure proper oversight and retraining of staff on site."
But according to the complaint, the staffers on leave were still being paid. A search of their Linkedin profiles shows that at least two are still working at the OPWDD.
And court papers allege that the abuse is still going on: One of the family members still notices unexplained bruises on her sister's body.
In February, another resident was taken to the emergency room "three separate times for serious and suspicious injuries, including head trauma and severe lacerations," per the complaint.
"These are people who are totally helpless, vulnerable," Maazel says. "They can't speak for themselves and they need other people to speak for them, and part of the purpose of this case is so we can give them the voice they don't have."
No criminal investigation is yet underway, but a spokesperson for the Bronx DA tells Broadly, "We are studying the allegations and take them seriously."
"We have a very long way to go, and we need substantial reform," said Maazel. "Not just in this house, not just the Bronx, but throughout the entire state."
A little over a month ago, according to the complaint, one of the family members called Union Avenue IRA to report more inappropriate conduct, and the person who took the call answered the phone, "Good morning, Bronx Zoo."
"This is not a case of one bad apple," Maazel wrote in the complaint. "The whole tree is rotten to the core."