Most of California's developmentally disabled citizens live in group homes around the state. But there are still five state-run institutions that house about 1,700 people with severe cerebral palsy, mental retardation and autism. Over the course of the last year, the nonprofit reporting group California Watch has detailed how the in-house police force responsible for these centers often fails to do basic police work after patients are attacked. Guest: Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch reporter covering public safety and criminal justice. Reporter: Rachael Myrow
Rachael Myrow: Most of California's developmentally disabled citizens live in group homes around the state. But there are still five state-run institutions that house about 1700 people with severe cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and autism. Over the course of the last year, California Watch has detailed how the in-house police force responsible for these centers often fails to do basic police work after patients are attacked. Ryan Gabrielson joins us to talk about his latest report. A word of warning: The following conversation is likely to be disturbing to many of our listeners. Thank you for joining us.
Ryan Gabrielson: Thanks for having me.
Myrow: Talk about the Taser case in Sonoma.
Gabrielson: In September of last year, the executive director of the Sonoma Developmental Center received a tip on his answering machine that said an assistant psychiatric technician named Archie Millora was using a stun gun on several patients at one residence at Sonoma Developmental Center. When the police responded to that on September 26, in the afternoon, they found paired circular thermal burns on six or seven patients that was highly consistent with use of a stun gun. The following morning, about 8 o'clock, when they thought that Mr. Millora was going to be showing up for work, they intercepted him. He had actually been at work for an hour. They got his consent to search his car. In the car, they found a Taser C-2, which is commercially sold, and a loaded Glock 34 handgun with an extended clip.
Myrow: And then what happened?
Gabrielson: The Office of Protective Services, the in-house police force, turned Mr. Millora over to the Sonoma Center's administrators, who put him on administrative time off. And he was released. His job was in jeopardy at that point, but not his freedom.
Myrow: What's the protocol for something like this? Who has jurisdiction, who's supposed to do something about this?
Gabrielson: Well, the Office of Protective Services is supposed to do something about this. They are the criminal investigative force at the developmental centers. They exist solely because, the argument is that this population is so vulnerable to abuse, you need an on-site police force to respond and investigate. And it's true, you do need that function. But the Office of Protective Services, most of the force, or a good chunk of the force, has little to no law enforcement experience. The police chief was a career firefighter with no criminal investigative experience before he was made commander to oversee investigations. So you've got a force that rarely has the experience or the knowledge to do the job. And in this case, they just flat out didn't. They hadn't questioned him for at least a week and a half after the incident. And certainly the day of, most law enforcement, when they find proof of the crime and thermal burns on patients, an allegation made directly against this individual, this caregiver, and then they find the weapon on the caregiver, they're going to -- at bare minimum -- take him in for custody, and that's not what happened here.
Myrow: So you talked to all the different levels of law enforcement and regulatory enforcement, what do they have to say about this?
Gabrielson: For the most part, they say that the Office of Protective Services and the Sonoma Developmental Center, and then the state agency that runs all this-the Department of Developmental Services-told them about the weapons, but didn't tell them they'd confirmed the abuse. That's specifically what the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office [said], which also has jurisdiction in this. They could have rolled in and taken over the case. They chose not to, because they say the Office of Protective Services only told them there was an allegation of abuse. Not that there were, what would ultimately become 12 substantiated cases where a stun gun was used on people with severe developmental disabilities, all but one of whom is incapable of speaking. The District Attorney's Office, which ultimately filed a weapons charge against Mr. Millora before the concealed handgun in his car has said up to this point they were not referred anything on the abuse cases, which could have put Mr. Millora, if he was charged and found guilty on those, he could have faced more than two decades in prison.
Myrow: What did the State Department of Developmental Services have to say? That's the agency that runs these facilities around the state.
Gabrielson: They've only provided one written statement. They've ignored requests for interviews, they've ordered their entire staff not to speak to reporters. So only Terri Delgadillo, the director of the department, speaks through written statements. They say they are taking corrective action as we speak and investigations are ongoing, almost a year later.
Myrow: What happened to Archie Millora, is he still working with a vulnerable population?
Gabrielson: We don't know. He was fired, the State Comptroller's Office has confirmed for us that he was fired on November 3rd of last year. We don't know if he's working, or if he's working with dependent adults, the vulnerable. He was never charged or convicted of a felony. The weapons violation is a misdemeanor, so he has no felony record. So there's nothing that would prevent him from working in a group home right now.
Myrow: How did you find out about this story if everybody's been so close-lipped, and has been historically about issues like this.
Gabrielson: Yeah, and there is no record of this in the public record. Some people within the agency and former employees, after we published our initial series in February, in meetings with me mentioned to me and asked had I heard about the stun gun assaults. And I asked, what about the stun gun assaults? You know, something that significant I figured I would have heard of it in a year of reporting. But I hadn't, and it took me several months of digging and recently partnering with our reporting partners at KGO to find people who had documentation on this and could provide that to me that confirmed not only that a dozen people were assaulted, but that Mr. Millora was not arrested after he was found with the Taser in his car.
Myrow: As you say, you've been reporting on this subject area for about a year around the state. Is it your sense that this is a one-off, an unusual situation, or the tip of the iceberg?
Gabrielson: I'd say it's closer to the tip of the iceberg than a one-off. I would never suggest that people are assaulting the developmentally disabled with stun guns, ever week, by any means. But there is a significant amount of abuse that is documented by state regulators and the developmental centers themselves that never becomes public. There have been homicides that the public is never told about. There are, if not hundreds, dozens of these cases in recent years that never become public, because under the State Department of Public Health's and Developmental Services' interpretation of the law, everything is confidential.
Myrow: I was stunned to read in your article that this in-house police force on any of the campuses in LA, Sonoma, Orange, Tulare, Riverside counties, that they're not required to report allegations of abuse like this Taser incident to local authorities.
Gabrielson: They're required to report suspicious deaths and certain injuries of unknown origin. There are two bills right now pending in the legislature that would change that, that would require these kinds of cases go to outside law enforcement. But to date, that's not the case.
Myrow: What are family members saying to you about this story?
Gabrielson: One of the most heartbreaking parts of this story, period, is how few of the people who live in developmental centers have outside family involved in their lives. The one victim in this who I was able to find their parents, they refused to speak to me because they don't want any information that is negative about the developmental centers to get out because they're very afraid that the developmental centers will be closed, and group homes don't present necessarily a better alternative for their child. Who's not a child, who's been living in a developmental center for forty years.
Myrow: The Department of Public Health looked into this… what happened with that?
Gabrielson: Sonoma Developmental Center was issued a citation in June for $10,000, a fine, Class A violation because they put patients at risk of serious harm or even death, potentially, with the stun gun assaults. So they were penalized, but every word of that citation is blacked out in the public record. We got a copy of it through another source, unredacted.
Myrow: If the victims, or some of the victims are presumably adults…
Gabrielson: They're all adults.
Myrow: Then why is that information redacted?
Gabrielson: Under the welfare institutions code in California law, I think it's Section 45.14, it says that all information gathered or produced in the process of providing services or assessment to the developmentally disabled is confidential. The State Department of Public Health interprets that to mean basically every piece of information, even information involving crimes against this population. We're currently suing the Department of Public Health, challenging their interpretation of that, because we don't believe investigating abuse of the developmentally disabled, in some cases homicides, counts as services.
Myrow: Well, thank you for talking with us.
Gabrielson: Thanks for having me.
The Sonoma District Attorney's office has announced that it will review the stun gun incidents, after Gabrielson shared state Department of Public Health investigation records with them. Ryan Gabrielson focuses on public safety and criminal justice for California Watch at the Center for Investigative Reporting.