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A nonprofit watchdog advocating for the rights of Ohioans with disabilities is concerned about a budget proposal from the state senate to ramp up oversight of its own activities.
Disability Rights Ohio has been the state’s designated Protection and Advocacy system since 2012, tasked with helping oversee the care of individuals with disabilities and informing them of their personal rights.
All 50 states have such designated groups that are meant to provide an independent check on the public care system. A proposal to institute legislative oversight of Ohio’s group has its leaders fearing the change would have a “chilling effect” on its work.
The state senator who pushed for the change has said it is in the best interest of Ohioans with disabilities.
Advocacy work has legal guardians
DRO is funded solely by federal grants and receives no state money, noted Executive Director Kerstin Sjoberg. While the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities is the primary oversight of intermediate care facilities, Sjoberg said DRO is meant “to be a kind of check.”
Social workers with DRO conduct visits at care facilities throughout Ohio, meeting with individuals one-on-one to share information about their protected legal rights and learn how things are going. The organization tries to advocate for those who may be experiencing problems such as abuse or neglect.
These private interactions are what concerns state Sen. Mark Romanchuk, R-Ontario. They are held, at least initially, without an individual’s legal guardian present.
Sjoberg defended this practice as being necessary for confidentiality and legal reasons, but Romanchuk has described hearing complaints from guardians who want to be more involved in the process.
DRO tries to be transparent by informing care facilities of their visits ahead of time, Sjoberg said, noting no one is required to speak to its advocates. The organization is not a regulatory agency, meaning it cannot force any changes at these facilities — Sjoberg said advocates try to hear about issues and work with employees and guardians to find solutions.
She feels the organization is being unfairly target given that it receives no state funding to conduct its work.
“It’s baffling the state legislature would want to spend its time on this,” she said.
The proposal was not in DeWine’s initial budget rollout, nor was it in the Ohio House of Representatives budget version approved earlier this year.
Members of the two legislative chambers are now hashing out the differences between their respective bills. For this oversight change to be enacted, the House would have to agree to it as well.
Sjoberg said her organization is lobbying for these budget negotiators to remove the provision or for the governor to veto the provision if it reaches his desk.
Lawmakers on the “conference committee” are working to approve a final budget bill ahead of the new fiscal year starting on July 1.
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