Police: Workers missed sex abuse signs

Posted
Thursday, May 22
LEE — Four employees of the Department of Mental Retardation face district court charges of failing to report a possible sexual assault of a disabled woman.

Police were informed three days after the fact that a 33-year-old, mentally retarded woman, who lives in the care of the Department of Mental Retardation, returned from a visit with her family showing potential signs of sexual abuse. Any physical evidence had likely been destroyed by then, police said, and they did not charge anyone with assault.

But the four employees — Jennifer A. Kergaravat, Shirley A. Edgerton, Barbara M. Symonds and Kathy T. Ragusa — could face a fine of up to $1,000 each if convicted of the failure-to-report charge. State law requires caregivers for disabled people to inform the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission immediately if they suspect abuse.

According to court documents and police reports, the alleged victim does not speak and communicates through simple sign language, gestures and by pointing at pictures. She has lived in the DMR's care for several years, since her brother was convicted in 2000 of sexually assaulting her. Kergaravat ran the home and reported to Edgerton, while Symonds and Ragusa worked with the residents.

Given her history, the group home workers had been warned to pay careful attention to the woman when she returned from family visits, including performing "body checks" to look for any signs of abuse.

In April 2007, she visited her mother and father, who live in Richmond. When her father brought the woman back to the home that evening, workers noticed that his pants zipper was down. Later, when Symonds was undressing the woman for her bath, she discovered the woman's bra was inside out and found a white fluid in the woman's soiled underwear.

Symonds showed both to Ragusa, according to police reports. She tried to call the worker who had dressed the woman that morning but was unable to reach her. In the meantime, she washed the woman's clothes, possibly erasing physical evidence of assault, police said.

Kergaravat was informed of the woman's condition, according to statements given to police, and she in turn notified Edgerton.

The four workers said they didn't report the abuse to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission because they were not certain that the woman had been sexually assaulted, according to court documents.

"I usually err on the side of caution," Edgerton said in a signed statement included in court records, "and I would (file) a report if something met the criteria. I felt that all I had was that (the woman's) father's fly was down. The (soiled underwear) is a common occurrence for (the woman). My staff sometimes mess up, and it could be they put (the woman's) bra on backwards. In my mind, I thought there was nothing to (file) on. There were no marks on (the woman) and her behavior was normal."

Three days after the woman's visit to her family, a part-time worker learned of the alleged abuse and called police. By then, however, the physical evidence had been destroyed, investigators said, and it was impossible to determine whether the woman had been sexually assaulted. Authorities did, however, impose a protective order that prevents the woman from visiting her family without a chaperone.

State police sought a criminal complaint against the four case workers, which was granted by a clerk magistrate in December. In March, Edgerton's attorney, Judith C. Knight of Great Barrington, filed a motion to dismiss the charges. Judge Paul M. Vrabel denied that motion on May 12, concluding there is probable cause to believe a crime occurred.

"At trial the defendants will be free to explain their subjective reasons for not making a report," Vrabel wrote.

Edgerton has been reassigned pending the outcome of the case, a Department of Mental Retardation spokeswoman said; the current status of the other three employees was not available yesterday.


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