Opinion Article by Taylor Easley (she/her), Minority Graduate Fellow in Public Health and Margo Whitesel (she/they), Social Work Intern
Imagine that you are a person with disabilities living in a group home and needing staff, but staff are not there. Imagine that you feel abandoned, and you question your self-worth. Your independence is already limited by the group home–now you feel even more isolated and alone.
People with disabilities in congregate care settings who need staff to help them should be able to know that staff will be there and not just leave them completely alone without support, or “go AWOL” as some call it. Understaffing can reach a critical point when personnel abandon their responsibility to resident safety. The disAbility Law Center of Virginia (dLCV) reviews incident reports from Developmental Disability providers across the state. Last year, we identified at least 58 reports of staff not supervising people with disabilities. dLCV brought this issue to the Coalition for Community Safety which supported our plan to do more monitoring at group homes where the staff are leaving residents unattended.
Out of the 58 reports where staff were not on shift last year, 140 people were affected by staff leaving their charges unsupervised; in one particularly egregious incident 16 people were impacted. The data dLCV receives is only from mental health and developmental disability providers and does not include incidents in which this same situation may be happening in settings where people with other disabilities are being cared for, like assisted living facilities and nursing homes. The reasons staff reportedly left people alone included drug use while on duty, unforeseen emergencies, personal reasons, and staff simply not showing up for a shift. Due to the nature of reporting, it is often hard to tell how often these individuals are left alone; reports suggest that these incidents range anywhere from about 15 minutes to entire 8-hour shifts.
Staff leaving individuals alone who they are paid to supervise is neglect—plain and simple. When staff “go AWOL,” it erodes trust, it risks serious injury and death, it harms employee morale, it contributes to a culture of understaffing, and it is a waste of taxpayer funds.
This is an ongoing issue. dLCV is still getting reports that staff are not supervising people with disabilities. In response, we are doing monitoring of providers where we are seeing this neglect occur.
To support this monitoring and the systemic changes that are needed to protect vulnerable Virginians from neglect, dLCV works with a Coalition for Community Safety. The Coalition discusses trends that dLCV identifies in its incident reports and helps identify and enact strategies for advocacy and systems change. The Coalition is always accepting new members—people with disabilities and their family members are especially encouraged to join us. You can learn more about how you can help promote impactful social change for Virginians with disabilities in the Coalition for Community Safety here.