Remembering Willowbrook during the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Grace Terry

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

NEW YORK, United States — As the COVID-19 Pandemic continues, the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) continues to face a worsening staffing crisis. In the final months of 2021, in the Central NY region alone, the state temporally suspended nine group homes. OPWDD has stated that the “temporary consolidation of group home is to maintain quality care and workplace conditions”. The low wages of the direct support staff (DSPs) at these facilities are at the heart of the crisis and legislators recognize this ongoing problem has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Willbrook building as it stands today in Staten Island, New York. Photo courtesy of Untapped New York.

“The current staffing crisis recalls an earlier incident that happened in New York State that made its way in federal court.”In 1972, a television reporter aired graphic footage from inside the Willowbrook State School, an institution designed to house children with intellectual disabilities. At its highest population, the institution housed 6,200 individuals in a building designed for 4,000 residents while drastically understaffed. This led to two class-action lawsuits, and the family members of the affected individuals sought injunctive relief to improve conditions, including hiring more staff.  The Eastern District Court of New York held that plaintiffs’ right to protection from harm in a state institution had been violated and granted this injunctive relief. This case set a precedent for the requirement of humane and ethical treatment of individuals who use these types of intuitions.

In NYS ARC, Inc v. Rockefeller (1973), it was noted that the number of ward attendants was incredibly low and that the lack of competitive salaries was a factor. In the facilities’ dayrooms, the staffing ratio was 1 staff member for every 15 residents. The 1964 American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD) standards required ratio of 1:5 for the first shift, 1:7 for the second shift, and 1:15 for the third shift at this facility. This serious understaffing caused hazardous conditions for the “health, safety, and sanity” of the residents. This included over 1,300 reports of injury, fights, patient assaults, and abuse.

The Court in NY ARC found a right to protection from harm through criminal law. When individuals are confined under criminal law, a tolerable living environment is guaranteed by law. The Court went further and held that OPWDD facility conditions are held to a higher standard, as residents in these facilities are not being constitutionally punished. The Court did not give an exhaustive list of rights, but it did note there is support for relief for violating that standard.

The appalling examples of mistreatment in the Willowbrook institutional facility led to the residents being placed in group homes, less restrictive, community-based facilities. The Court declared the department’s new goal should be to “ready each resident…for life in the community at large.” OPWDD and its provider agencies have since recognized that smaller group home designs are more effective and have transitioned from primarily using large institutions to group homes. These facilities have small staff to resident ratios, and a maximum capacity of 14 unrelated individuals per facility.

As of December 2021, OPWDD has stated that 57 group homes have been closed. The closures require group homes to be consolidated, increasing resident numbers without increasing staffing. As the Court stated in NYS ARC, appropriate staffing levels in required to ensure protection from harm. We need immediate action on behalf of our elected officials to rectify the staffing crisis and guarantee individuals utilizing State services are protected from harm.

For further information, please see:

CNY Central – “A workforce shortage of crisis proportions” impacting loved ones at New York group homes – 6 Dec. 2021

Disability Justice – The Closing of Willowbrook

Lohud. – Amid staffing crisis, pleas for Hochul to help New Yorkers with developmental disabilities – 5 Jan. 2022

The New York Times – Beatings, Burns and Betrayal: The Willowbrook Scandal’s Legacy – 21 Feb. 2020

The New York Times – 2 Suits Call for Eventual Phase Out of Willowbrook – 18 Mar. 1972

News 10 NBC – News10NBC Investigates: NYS group homes temporarily close as OPWDD tries to fill 537 job vacancies – 30 Nov. 2021

News 10 ABC – Officials talk staffing crisis closing group homes statewide – 22 Dec. 2021

Timeline –Willowbrook, the institution that shocked a nation into changing its laws – 15 Jun. 2017

United States District Court, E. D. New York – New York St. Ass’n for Retard. Child., Inc. v. Rockefeller – 10 Apr. 1973

Georgian State Failed to Properly Protect LGBT Demonstrators

By: George Rose

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

STRASBOURG, France — On May 17, 2013, members of the LGBT community in Georgia planned and obtained permits to hold a vigil on the steps of parliament on International Day Against Homophobia. Many former Soviet countries still have laws outlawing homosexuality, with Georgia legalizing same sex marriage in 2015. While the LGBT community was planning their vigil, members of the Orthodox Church began planning a counter demonstration, citing this as a spread of “homosexual propaganda”.

The demonstration when violence broke out.
Photo curtesy of the New York Times.

While a peaceful counterdemonstration may not have been a problem, peace was not the outcome at the demonstration. Once the members of the Orthodox Church’s counterdemonstration arrived, they quickly overrode the police barriers erected around the parliament building. The Orthodox protesters became violent, videos show priests brandishing various weapons, going as far as using stools from bars and shops, shouting “kill them”. One LGBT demonstrator remarked that she had been assaulted by members of the Orthodox Church, she recalled seeing blood on the ground and was unsure if it was hers or not. After the violence broke out, the police loaded the LGBT demonstrators onto a minibus, however, the members from the Orthodox church smashed through the windows to attack those on board. In the aftermath of the attack, eight members of the LGBT demonstration were hospitalized, as well as three police officers. Following the attack on the LGBT demonstrators, Georgia’s Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili vowed that those who promoted the violence would be punished. However, the LGBT rights groups are still waiting for proof that the government has held those who promoted violence, accountable.

In a case brought against Georgia in the European Court of Human Rights, the court ruled that Georgia had been complacent by failing to properly protect the LGBT groups. The court reasoned that the use of police officers who were unarmed, thus protecting the demonstrators with a thin line of police officers, was not adequate protection. Further, the court found that in video footage, several officers allowed the violent members of the Orthodox Church within reaching distance of the LGBT demonstrators.

The court ordered Georgia to pay €193,500 to the applicants, with €10,000 reserved to an applicant who had suffered a concussion, and €6,000 for an applicant who had been humiliated by police officers.

For further information, please see:

The European Court of Human Rights – Press Release: Unprecedented Violence against LGBT Demonstrators

The New Yorker – What Was Behind Georgia’s Anti-Gay Rally? – 23 May 2013

The New York Times – Crowd Led by Priests Attacks Gay Rights Marchers in Georgia – 17 May 2013

NPR – Anti-Gay Riot in Tblisi Tests Balance Between Church, State – 30 Jul. 2013

Civilians Killed by Security Forces After Thousands Protest Military Rule in Sudan

By: Amanda Drantch

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

KHARTOUM, Sudan — In 2019 Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was ousted in hopes of establishing a democratic government. During his forceful control over Sudan, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant accusing al-Bashir of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide that he and other officials committed against those living in the Darfur region. Currently, al-Bashir is still at large and has yet to be properly prosecuted for his atrocities against the Sudanese.

Civilians protesting military rule on the streets of Sudan. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Following the overthrow of al-Bashir, then Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, took control over the transitional democratic government. However, in October of 2021, the Sudanese military forcibly seized control over Sudan, and dissolved the democratic transitional government within hours. Shortly after seizing control, the military ousted and arrested Prime Minister Hamdok. However, after a contentious deal with the military, Prime Minister Hamdok was then reinstated about a month later.

Civilians quickly took to the streets and protested not only the coup that originally overthrew Hamdok, but also the contentious deal with the military that culminated in his return to power. Oppositional political groups and civilians violently rejected Hamdok’s agreement with the military for his reinstatement.

On January 2, 2022 Prime Minister Hamdok gave a televised speech announcing his resignation, and cited his failed mediation attempts between the military and the pro-democracy movement in Sudan. Even prior to his resignation violent clashes between civilians, and the Sudanese security forces left more than sixty dead.

The civilian led protests only increased after Hamdok’s resignation, with thousands protesting daily against the possibility of another autocratic government. On Janurary 17, 2022 demonstrators and anti-coup protestors marched in Khartoum shouting slogans like “No, no to military rule”. Sudanese security forces fired tear gas and opened fire on the protestors, leaving three dead. This increased the death toll to sixty-seven since the demonstrations began.

 Many of the pro-democracy protestors are young people who are engaging in these daily demonstrations and demanding that the military hand over their power to the civilians to lead the country to democracy. Military leaders consistently reject the protestor’s demands and insist that power will be handed over only to an elected government.

For now, elections are scheduled to take place in July 2023, but uncertainty and violence still remains in Sudan.

For further information please see:

Al-Jazeera – Tear Gas Fired at Sudan Protests as Thousands Rally Against Army – 04 Jan. 2022

New York Times – Sudan’s Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, Resigns – 02 Jan. 2022

Reuters – Security Forces Fire Tear Gas as Thousands of Protestors March Again in Sudan – 17 Jan. 2022

The Philadelphia Inquirer – Sudanese Forces Open Fire on Anti-Coup Protests, Killing 3 – 17. Jan. 2022

ECHR Demands Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence in Russia

By: Jorge Estacio

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

RUSSIA — The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has recognized that Russian authorities continue to systemically fail to protect victims of domestic violence.

Protestors hold banners against domestic violence in Russia. Photo courtesy of euronews.com.

On September 14, 2021, the ECHR rendered a verdict in favor of Valeriya Igorevna Volodina, holding that authorities violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically her right to respect for private life. After separating from her partner, “S.”, Ms. Volodina became a target for cyber violence. Her former partner created faked social media accounts using her name, planted a GPS tracking device within her bag, and sent death threats to her actual social media account. Additionally, S. used the fake social media account to display nude pictures of Ms. Volodina without her consent. The court stated that Russian law failed to provide protection for victims of domestic violence. The authorities had the legal tools to investigate the ongoing cyberviolence but failed to take measures of deterrence. They took two years to open a criminal case for the matter. Which resulted in the perpetrator escaping justice due to a time limit contingency within criminal proceedings. For security reasons Ms. Volodina changed her name to an undisclosed identity as of 2018.

The ECHR is threatening to continue handling Russian domestic violence cases in a simplified and accelerated form if the government does not adopt proper measures. The court refers to Ms. Volodina’s case as an example of the systematic problems that continue to prevent prosecution and convictions for domestic violence.

Displaying their willingness to expedite justice for Russian victims of domestic violence, the ECHR joined the judgment of four cases with similar subject matter. It resulted in Russia paying monetary compensation for each victim. The case noted authorities failed to properly assess the victims’ claims, were not properly trained to do so, and failed to take any action towards the known risk. Additionally, the international court condemned the government for having a legal framework that set a high threshold for injuries to be prosecutable and criminal proceedings that rushed through domestic violence inquiries. One of the victims lost her case in Kuzminskiy District Court because she arrived “sixteen minutes late” for the hearing. On December 14, 2021, in its decision the ECHR noted Russia violated several Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights culminating in discrimination against women.

Although insufficient to fully compensate for gross disregard of Human Rights, the ECHR efforts are certainly making it clear that the Russian government cannot continue to disregard the lack of human protection.  

For further information, please see:

The European Court of Human Rights – Press Release: Violations in authorities’ failure to respond to domestic violence cases; urgent legal changes required – Dec. 14, 2021

Jurist| Legal News & Commentary – Europe human rights court rules Russia must do more to combat domestic violence – Dec. 16, 2021

The European Court of Human Rights – Press Release: Russian authorities failed to protect domestic abuse victim from her partner’s cyberviolence – Sept. 14, 2021

Institute of Modern Russia – Sergei Davidis: “The human rights violations in Russia is fraught with instability in the West” – Jan. 12, 2022

Canada Terminates Collection and Reporting of COVID-19 Cases in Schools While Texas Governor Bans Mask Mandates in Schools

By: Jessica Senzer

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

NORTH AMERICA — On December 30, 2021, Ontario’s s Ministry of Education announced that it will no longer collect or report data of new COVID-19 infections starting in 2022. Before this change, the Ministry of Education collected COVID-19 data, including weekly case numbers from school boards. Education Minister Stephen Lecce stated that this was done partially because “schools are literally some of the safest places in our community…”

Texas students in school. Photo courtesy of Texas Tribune.

However, this decision was not well-accepted among all Canadians. In fact, in a statement, New Democratic Party Education Critic Marit Stiles said that this action “is going to hurt kids, families, and education workers.” Decisions that reduced COVID-19 protections have been unaccepted in the past, particularly by disabled communities. Canada’s disabled community will likely take issue with the Ministry’s new announcement.

On August 11, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott passed an Executive Order that prohibited school districts and charter schools from enforcing mask mandates-the Texas governor loosened COVID-19 protections in the state. Like in Canada, this decision was met with much citizen dissatisfaction.

Less than a week after the Executive Order was passed, Disability Rights Texas and Winston & Strawn LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14 disabled child plaintiffs, claiming, among other things, that the Order puts students with disabilities at great risk by depriving them of in-person education in a safe environment.

Disabled students in Canada will likely have similar concerns. Since the Ministry of Education is no longer collecting or reporting data on COVID-19 infection rates, students, disabled or not, will not know how many students, faculty, and staff, have, have been exposed to or have symptoms of COVID-19. This change could pose problems for students with various disabilities, including those that lead to a compromised immune system or anxiety.

In the Texas lawsuit, one plaintiff had ADHD, growth hormone deficiency, and asthma. She claimed she was at greater risk of serious illness because she needed to participate in in-person instruction but constantly had to worry about being exposed to COVID-19 at school. Canadian schoolchildren will face similar concerns if they do not know how many students, faculty, and staff have been exposed to, contracted, or have symptoms of COVID-19 due to government non-reporting of this data.

For further information, please see:

Disability Rights Texas- First Federal Lawsuit Filed Against Texas Governor on Mask Mandate Ban Says It Violates ADA, Section 504- 17 Aug. 2021

Global News- Ontario’s education ministry to stop collecting COVID case numbers from schools- 1 Jan. 2022

Toronto News- Ontario to stop collecting COVID-19 numbers from school boards, suspend reporting of cases – 31 Dec. 2021