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Originally published Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 4:10 PM

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Editorial: Lawmakers must protect vulnerable adults

The Legislature must give DSHS tools to address recent audits showing a pattern of improper payments to supported-living providers. Even worse, the report finds caregivers with criminal backgrounds likely had unsupervised access to clients.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WASHINGTON state has some grave problems with how it serves citizens with developmental disabilities, two July 31 state audit reports concluded.

The twin audits should be another wake-up call for the state Legislature to remedy these deficits. Last session, lawmakers did not add a single investigator to address a massive complaint backlog. The latest findings underscore the urgency. They include:

• Washington’s chronic underfunding of services for people with developmental disabilities continues. About 15,000 people eligible for such services as housing, medical care and job planning are languishing on a waiting list.

• Mismanagement of payments to assist about 3,700 individuals with supported living has squandered possibly millions, including $500,000 in overpayments, $11.3 million in questionable payments and $5.5 million in unauthorized payments.

• Auditors concluded 23 people working with vulnerable supported-living clients had criminal-background checks that should have disqualified them from getting hired. That figure is based on a sample pool of 1,400 supported-living workers (out of 40,000 statewide).

People with histories of assault, theft, drug charges, neglect and financial exploitation have no business working with vulnerable populations.

• Twelve percent of employees in supported-living settings lacked safety-training certification. The numbers may be much higher, but the state is too understaffed to investigate or cross-check records.

The Department of Social and Health Services’ (DSHS) Developmental Disability Administration ought to revise its policies and practice and make the strongest case possible for legislative changes. So far, agency officials are seeking consultant advice and replacing paper reports with a modern payment system. They must do more.

The nonprofit Disability Rights Washington suggests lawmakers enact sensible, incremental policy changes to better protect clients:

• Give DSHS statutory authority to fine and punish violators in supported-living settings, just as they do for those who break rules in adult-family homes, assisted-living and nursing facilities. Without penalties, misbehavior persists.

• Hire more investigators to respond to the thousands of complaints received every year, as well as to help ensure caregivers with criminal records are weeded out.

Last session, DSHS officials asked lawmakers for more resources to handle the intolerable backlog of 2,900 complaints alleging neglect and abuse of people with disabilities. Lawmakers failed even to leverage federal funds to hire six full-time investigators.

In the meantime, the state auditor's latest reports nail Washington for not doing enough to care for its most vulnerable citizens.

Are lawmakers embarrassed enough to repair the damage? They should be.

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