By MARGIE TRAX PAGE

Staff Writer

mtrax@starbeacon.com



Though the listing process of Ohio's Department of Mental Retardation and Development Disabilities abuse registry is slow, it is the most effective tool available in protecting mentally challenged people from known abusers, Ashtabula County MR/DD Superintendent Ann Zeitler said.

The online abuser registry was created to prohibit abusive employees from working in the system. The registry requires the state to review each report of abuse, neglect or misappropriation and determine whether there is a reasonable basis for the report. The county MR/DD boards initiate the investigations and notify the state. If the allegation is criminal, law-enforcement officials are alerted.

But the process often takes years between an allegation of abuse and the listing of a former MR/DD employee and does not cross state lines, as many states do not sponsor such a registry and no national registry exists. The only thing keeping a known abuser in Ohio from working in another state are employers willing to search online registries in each individual state.

"Even background checks won't catch a lot of the criteria for abuse in the mentally challenged. That is why this database is so very valuable to us. It is the first line of defense in catching abuse," Zeitler said.

Though it is the most effective -- and often only -- paper trail of abuse and misconduct in the industry, there are holes in the abuse registry system that could potentially allow an abuser to work with the developmentally challenged for years after an allegation of abuse.

"It is possible that an abuser could work in other facilities after being fired for abuse between the time of the allegation and the time they are registered online. If they are not listed on the registry, there is no way to track misconduct other than a routine background check, which doesn't catch everything," Zeitler said.

Once a person is listed on the abuse registry, he is forever banned from working with mentally retarded patients in Ohio. His name will remain on the registry for a minimum of five years. Ohio employers are required to check the abuser registry before hiring an applicant and are encouraged to check employee's names with the system periodically, Zeitler said.

In one recent case, it took three years between when a resident at a local home complained of being threatened and when the abuser was finally listed on the registry.

"This isn't a perfect system, but it is a good system. This is a process in which we try to be as through and fair in our investigation as possible. We are not dragging our feet through investigations, but given the circumstances, we have to be as thorough as possible," Zeitler said.

Because many of the accusers of abuse are mentally and cognitively impaired and may be confused about the intentions or body language of a care worker, investigations into abuse must be especially complete, Zeitler said.

"We have to be fair to everyone, including the person being accused of abuse. The truth comes out during the process and even if abuse is substantiated, the accused must be allowed due process," she said.

If allegations are substantiated, the state director places the employee's name on the registry, according to the Web site (www.odmrdd.state.oh.us).

Manor Home Administrator Deb Maloy said hiring dedicated, well-meaning workers to care for the mentally disabled is her biggest challenge in staffing.

Manor Home is a residence for 54 developmentally challenged men of all ages in downtown Geneva.

"Allegations are always taken seriously, but every aspect of an alleged incident is documented and investigated. This is a real process that takes a lot of time," Maloy said.

Investigations sometimes have criminal and legal implications, taking a case out of the hands of the MR/DD board and adding years to the process.



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