The General Assembly voted unanimously last month to stiffen penalties for abuse that occurs in group homes. Senate Bill 445 — “Burt’s Law” — increases the penalties for abuse of residents in facilities that care for those with mental and developmental disabilities and substance abuse disorders.
Burt’s Law was named after 37-year-old Burt Powell, a special needs patient and resident of a group home for adults with mental disabilities. Burt was placed in the Conover facility by his parents in the hopes of increasing his chances of achieving a more independent lifestyle. Having lived in the facility for years, Burt eventually reported that he had been sexually abused and victimized over the course of a year by one of the group home’s managers.
Workers at the home allegedly knew about the abuse but did not report it because their jobs were threatened. Burt was also threatened if he spoke up. The caretaker also told Burt that his family would be harmed if he spoke up.
The perpetrator, who was in his late sixties and had worked with handicapped people his entire career, died from a heart attack before charges could be brought against him.
“It is our responsibility to protect those who cannot defend themselves,” Governor Pat McCrory said during an emotional signing ceremony. “What happened to Burt is heartbreaking, but because of his bravery, Burt’s Law will work to ensure the safety of group home residents in the future.”
“I’d like to thank Burt for his incredible courage for letting his story be known,” added Governor McCrory to warm applause. “You’re a hero.”
Present at the governor’s signing ceremony were Burt Powell, parents Laurie and Tom Powell, Conover’s mayor, Lee Moritz, a bipartisan group of Senators and House members, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who had made it a special priority.
The new law not only significantly modifies the severity of potential penalties but also imposes additional affirmative duties on facilities, their employees and facility volunteers. The changes provided by Burt’s Law are:
- Increases the potential penalty on any employee or volunteer who knowingly causes pain or injury to a patient of the facility. The penalty is raised from a Class 1 misdemeanor to a Class A-1 misdemeanor. Under the North Carolina Structured Sentencing Guidelines, a violation of this provision can now be punished by jail time up to 150 days depending upon the perpetrator’s criminal history;
- Adds a Class 1 misdemeanor penalty for an employee or volunteer who borrows or takes personal property from a patient;
- Increases the penalty from a Class 3 misdemeanor to a Class 1 misdemeanor for any employee or volunteer who witnesses and does not report another employee or volunteer who knowingly causes pain or injury to a client or takes personal property from a client;
- Adds the requirement that employees or volunteers report the offense within 24 hours to: (1) the NC Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Social Services; or (2) the District Attorney in the district where the facility serves the patient; or (3) an appropriate law enforcement agency in the city or county where the facility serves the patient. And adds the penalty of a Class A-1 misdemeanor for the failure to do so;
- Requires the Division of Social Services and the District Attorney to investigate any report of sexual abuse;
- Raises from a Class 3 misdemeanor to a Class 1 misdemeanor the failure to make an internal facility report. This penalty reclassification means that jail time, rather than just a fine, is now authorized as punishment in instances in which an abuse report is not made.
Governor McCrory signed Burt’s Law on May 26, 2015. The new penalties are effective immediately and the sexual abuse reporting requirements are effective December 1, 2015.