Mother sues to gain release from county jail
Matthew Pecchia is diagnosed with severe autism, Lyme’s disease and pediatric-acute onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, a condition characterized by sudden obsessive and compulsive behaviors.
One alleged outburst landed the Brewster man in the Putnam County Jail. But his four-month stay, beginning with his arrest on April 27 on a burglary charge, not only cost the county more than $100,000 but highlighted the closure of group homes for people with developmental disabilities because of longstanding staffing shortages that worsened during the pandemic.
The state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) took custody of Pecchia, 26, on Monday (Aug. 29), following an order by Judge Victor Grossman of the state Supreme Court, based in Carmel. His decision came a month after a Patterson town judge ordered Pecchia released for treatment and six days after Pecchia’s mother sued the agency.
On the same day as Grossman’s order, members of the Putnam Legislature’s Personnel Committee approved a fund transfer of nearly $223,000 to cover overtime for the jail. According to Sheriff Kevin McConville, more than half the amount, $118,456, represented the cost for 91 days of around-the-clock observation of Pecchia.
“It was a huge drain on our budget,” McConville told legislators.
Year-to-date, the department said it has amassed more than $194,000 in expenses monitoring Pecchia and other detainees with medical, psychological and addiction-related issues.
From the time of his arrest for allegedly entering a neighbor’s home and hitting the person, Pecchia languished, “chemically restrained” with medications such as Ativan and Haldol, according to court documents.
Because of his disability, Pecchia is largely unable to speak in full sentences. In weekly FaceTime calls with his mother while jailed, he kept repeating, “home, home,” according to her lawsuit.
“Because of his constant isolation, Matthew is regressing,” it said. “He is not able to groom himself. He is frequently angry. Recently, he tore his mattress.”
After two psychiatrists deemed Pecchia incapacitated, Judge Michael Caruso of Patterson ruled July 20 that he was incapable of standing trial. A week later, he ordered Pecchia released to OPWDD for up to 90 days of inpatient treatment. That order triggered weeks of emails between OPWDD and Disability Rights New York, a legal and advocacy organization based in Albany that was acting on behalf of Pecchia.
In response to one email from DRNY, according to court documents, the agency said that Pecchia’s case was being “investigated” and in a follow-up said they thought a court hearing was scheduled for Aug. 24 and that no release order had yet been issued.
In subsequent emails, OPWDD said that its admissions were “paused” and cited staffing shortages and “circumstances largely outside our control” that limit “our ability to admit additional individuals.”
The state judge’s decision on Monday “speaks volumes about the gravity of [Pecchia’s] situation,” said Julie Keegan, DRNY’s director of protection and advocacy programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Correctional institutions are clearly not appropriate settings for people who lack capacity due to significant disabilities,” she said. “That is precisely why state and federal laws mandate intervention by state agencies like OPWDD to ensure people with disabilities are promptly provided appropriate care and treatment.”
A representative for OPWDD said on Wednesday (Aug. 31) that the state agency faces a worker shortage of “crisis proportions” and is down 2,000 care staff since April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic.
Vacancies for hard-to-fill positions are partly why 131 group homes have been “temporarily suspended” since 2019. In recent months, OPWDD implemented “emergency measures” to “ensure the safety of people living in a small number of group homes that are unable to retain or recruit sufficient staffing levels,” it said.
An effort to recruit employees and retain existing ones is underway, according to the agency. The state budget approved in April increased starting wages; temporarily increased overtime to 2½ times base pay; and provided for bonuses of up to $3,000 for state and nonprofit health care and mental hygiene staff, according to OPWDD.
The budget also included a 5.4 percent cost-of-living adjustment for nonprofits serving people with developmental disabilities, and OPWDD says it is spending $1.2 billion of its American Rescue Plan Act funding to retain and recruit workers, including offering one-time bonuses for direct-care staff employed at nonprofits it funds.
Keegan said she was “encouraged” to see OPWDD “held accountable” by the state judge. “However, there are others like Matthew who remain wrongly confined in correctional settings,” she said. “Immediate systemwide reform is critical.”