New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez on Thursday said he has “very serious concerns” that Mary Melero isn’t the only developmentally disabled person on the state’s waiver program that fell victim to abuse.
He called the 38-year-old woman’s death, allegedly at the hands of her caretakers, “a wake up call.”
Torrez suggested several reforms to the DD waiver program, which he said is “very well intentioned,” but could benefit from more resources and oversight.
He said additional staffing and training for in-home visits, pointing out that there are only 12 inspectors to oversee a population of nearly 7,000 members.
With that staffing level, Torrez said less than 10% of clients such as Melero would get a “random inspection” once a year.
“I don’t think that’s probably their preference. I just think it’s a function of what they’re capable of doing with current resources,” he said. “For others like (Melero), really what I worry about right now is, ‘Who else is out there?’”
Torrez said there should be checkups at least every two months, adding that other states rely on technology and other resources to keep tabs on members.
He said there needs to be regular health and safety inspections by the state on the providers themselves who, up until now, are self-reporting abuse. He said an independent system of checks and balances is needed.
“If you are the leader of a company … you have a very lucrative contract that’s at stake with the state of New Mexico,” he said. “What real incentive do you have to self-report that someone in your system has been engaged in this kind of abuse and neglect? Probably not a lot, right? Because your concern is, if I report this, could it mean the end of the contract.”
Torrez said there needs to be mandatory referrals to law enforcement for any substantiated case of abuse, neglect and exploitation. He said there also needs to be more public awareness, so community members know where to report allegations of abuse or concerns and “be on the lookout.”
Lastly, Torrez said the Legislature needs to look at new civil and criminal penalties for companies and providers who operate in the waiver program. He said, as it stands, providers can face civil penalties outlined in their contract, but there is not a state statute to be enforced.
Torrez called the current system “inadequate.”
He thought of parents like Melero’s mother, who died not knowing where her child would end up, or who would care for her.
“They live with this fear of ‘What happens to my child when I’m gone?’ And they shouldn’t have that fear,” Torrez said. “In the back of their minds, what they’re wondering is, ‘What if he ends up in a home like this… and I’m not there to protect them?”
“That’s where the government steps in,” he added. “That’s what the state of New Mexico and the Department of Health needs to step in and make sure that we’ve done this the right way.”