Four former direct care counselors at an assisted living facility in Southampton Town are facing felony charges, accused of forcing two developmentally disabled men in their charge to fight each other late last year while one of the workers recorded the incident on his cellphone.
The four suspects—Rosemary Vanni, 44, of Eastport; Stephen Komara, 58, of East Moriches; Erin McHenry, 28, of Brookhaven; and Justin McDonald, 19, of Lindenhurst—were all arraigned last week on two counts each of first-degree endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person, a felony, according to authorities.
All four were released after each posted $10,000 bail. Ms. Vanni and Ms. McHenry did not return calls seeking comment this week, while family members of Mr. Komara and Mr. McDonald said they did not want to speak with a reporter.
All four were arrested last month after a November 13 call placed to the New York State Justice Center For the Protection of People with Special Needs reported that the four counselors encouraged two developmentally disabled men in their 50s to fight each other at an Independent Group Home Living (IGHL) facility somewhere in Southampton Town. Southampton Town Police have declined to identify the facility where the incident took place, although a sworn statement by one of the accused indicates that 12 people are living at the home.
During the incident, which took place sometime between late October and early November, one of the developmentally disabled men grabbed the other man, who is confined to a wheelchair, by the neck and knocked him, along with his wheelchair, to the ground, according to police. The first man then “violently” stepped on the second man’s head and neck, according to accusatory documents filed against Ms. Vanni, Ms. McHenry, Mr. McDonald and Mr. Komara.
Based on an investigation of the incident, which included the confiscation of video footage of the fight, authorities said all four employees failed to protect the two men—both of whom have the mental capacity of an average 3- to 5-year-old, according to Town Police Detective Sergeant Lisa Costa. The investigation report also concluded that Ms. McHenry “encouraged the violent actions.” Neither man required medical attention, according to Sgt. Costa.
Frank Lombardi, a spokesman for Manorville-based IGHL, issued a press release last Thursday afternoon, February 6, stating that the agency is “outraged and offended by these alleged acts.”
“Staff who were accused of being involved were terminated,” Mr. Lombardi’s statement continued. “IGHL has a zero tolerance policy regarding these types of activities. We thoroughly screen potential employees, train our staff about abuse prevention and encourage the reporting of suspected mistreatment.”
Mr. Lombardi declined to specify the exact location of the facility in question and when asked about the specifics of IGHL’s staff screening process, he said: “We’re not going to get into any details like that.”
Mr. McDonald, who was arrested on January 12 at police headquarters in Hampton Bays, gave a statement to authorities admitting that he recorded the incident on his iPhone “because it’s a common occurrence, sometimes not to this magnitude. I filmed it because sometimes it’s entertaining,” he told police.
Jacqueline Kagan, a deputy special prosecutor for the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, said all four employees could either be seen or heard laughing in the cellphone video footage.
Mr. McDonald, who had been working at the IGHL facility since July, told police that he sent the video of the fight to a friend two hours after shooting it and before deleting it from his phone the next day.
According to the same accusatory document, Mr. McDonald also told police that Ms. McHenry encouraged one of the men to hit her so she could get the other man to retaliate on her behalf. Mr. McDonald also hand wrote a letter of apology to the families of the two men that concluded with the following: “I know IGHL was right for terminating my coworkers and myself because your loved ones [sic] care should have been the only priority to us. I hope with new staffing your loved one will receive the best care.”
Ms. McHenry, who was arrested on January 16, told police that one of the developmentally disabled men was hitting and kicking staff members and other clients at the home, including the man in the wheelchair. According to the same statement provided to police, Ms. McHenry said she tried to stop the man but was unsuccessful. She also told police that she had been at that IGHL facility for three years, and had been working in the field for eight years.
Ms. Vanni told police that one of the men had frequent “behavior problems,” including a tendency to hit and bite staff and other clients. She said his behavior had been an ongoing issue for staff, but “requests for help went unanswered.” She also said she did not recall the details of the night in question because she was filling out her “Goal Book” when the fight took place, but to her recollection there were only four employees working at the facility at the time.
Ms. Vanni, who said she had been working at IGHL for five and a half years, was arrested on January 13. She did not appear in court on February 6 with the other three former employees because her lawyer, Daniel Rodgers of Southampton, told her that he had filed a waiver of arraignment and, therefore, she did not have to appear. Southampton Town Justice Barbara Wilson said the court was not aware of any such documentation, so Ms. Vanni was arrested at her home last Thursday, February 6, on a bench warrant for failure to appear in court.
Mr. Rodgers said he is skeptical that his client did anything criminally wrong, noting that he has not been privy to the video, but based on her recollection and statements given by the other employees, she might not have been in the room during the fight. If she had been in the room, he continued, Mr. Rodgers said he wouldn’t blame his client for not attempting to break up the fight between the two men, both of whom are larger than Ms. Vanni and have a history of being violent, particularly to each other, according to Ms. Vanni.
“I can fully understand why my client might have been reluctant to physically intervene between these two men that were fighting,” Mr. Rodgers said. “She’s 5-foot-1, 44 years old. She’s a housewife and a mother.”
While her former coworkers are accused of being actively involved in the altercation, Ms. Vanni merely failed to act, according to Mr. Rodgers.
Mr. Komara was arrested on January 17 based on admissions made to investigators, according to Town Police; however, the Southampton Town Justice Court did not provide The Press with a copy of Mr. Komara’s sworn statement.
By law, special care facilities that oversee the welfare of developmentally disabled individuals that are either state-funded or state-licensed must report instances of abuse to the recently established Vulnerable Persons Central Registry hotline, not 911. The information is then passed on to the Justice Center, which investigates the incident, assuming the facility is under the center’s jurisdiction and the actions in question are determined to be of a criminal nature by Patricia Gunning, the center’s special prosecutor and inspector general.
IGHL is state licensed and receives funding through the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, as well additional funds through Medicaid.
The incident in Southampton Town was one of only a few that gets fully investigated by the proper authorities, according to Michael Carey, an advocate for the developmentally disabled and the founder of the Jonathon Carey Foundation, a nonprofit based in Delmar, New York, that has been instrumental in pushing for laws that protect persons with disabilities.
“It’s one of the ways that, tragically, New York State and its entities are able to get away with things, because they are kept off 911 and local police can’t investigate,” Mr. Carey said. “That’s how they are able to cover up a lot of things.”
The Jonathon Carey Foundation is named after Mr. Carey’s son, who was killed by an employee of a private care facility in 2007. Mr. Carey said people with developmental disabilities often are victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and incidents frequently go unreported because many victims are nonverbal.
Mr. Carey’s organization successfully pushed the New York State Legislature to upgrade the charge of endangering the welfare of an incompetent person from a class A misdemeanor to a class E felony in 2013 and, six year earlier, to pass Jonathon’s Law, which entitles legal guardians to have access to child abuse investigation files and medical histories.
Justice Center spokeswoman Diane Ward declined to say exactly how many calls the center has received since the hotline became operational in June 2013, but noted that officials receive approximately 300 calls a day. Most of these reports are classified as “significant incidents”—actions such as putting physical restraints on a disabled person when avoidable or putting someone in seclusion without authorization—in which employees are acting inappropriately, but not violating any state laws.
Some claims of abuse or neglect are substantiated, Ms. Ward explained, but are later determined by the Justice Center to be non-criminal. The IGHL incident marks the first time she is prosecuting a case. She added, however, that some incidents reported to the Justice Center are handled internally, without requiring police intervention.
Ms. Ward said the Justice Center communicates with local police departments and district attorneys to gauge interest and ability to pursue investigations, assuming there is enough evidence to substantiate a claim. In the case of IGHL in Southampton, Ms. Ward said Ms. Gunning and the Southampton Town Police determined there was enough evidence to prosecute.
Mr. Carey noted that thousands of incidents are reported to the Justice Center annually, and most are handled internally.
“Those caregivers went through very minimal training, went through not fully significant background checks [and] they’re not licensed,” Mr. Carey said of the four individuals who were arrested. “We’ve been saying for a long time that we have had a long-time, under-qualified work force, which is probably why we have so many instances of abuse.”