A Child Left Behind
By Alex Distefano
Experts estimate that 500,000 young adults with autism will reach adulthood in the next decade, according to media reports. This alarming figure hits close to home for the Inland Regional Center (IRC) located in San Bernardino, one of 21 nonprofit organizations set up throughout the state to provide services such as counseling, legal help and educational services to children and adults with developmental disabilities. The IRC is the largest of its kind in California, and serves an estimated 27,000 disabled individuals throughout San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The IRC’s website states that part of its mission statement is “to normalize the lives of people with developmental disabilities and their families by working to include them in the everyday routines and life rhythms of the community and by facilitating needed supports for them.”
But—according to at least one IRC employee—nothing could be further from the truth. Liliana Ibarra, a San Bernardino mother of three who has been working as an IRC social worker for the past nine years, claims she disciplined for requesting services for her three-year-old autistic, developmentally disabled son. She also alleges IRC used intimidation, threats and the fear of retaliation against her and other workers for speaking out and complaining to supervisors.
Ibarra recently filed a civil lawsuit against the organization, with Oakland-based attorneys Edwin J. Wilson Jr. and Todd Boley claiming that IRC violated Ibarra’s rights and the rights of her son.
Her attorneys allege that Ibarra’s case has merit because IRC has a track record of making life miserable for its employees. Last year IRC improperly spent $10 million and had to repay the state, according to an audit by the state Department of Developmental Services. IRC also improperly awarded a $1 million contract to a transportation management company and was accused of fostering a “culture of employee intimidation,” among other serious issues.
“The IRC has a pattern of mistreatment and intimidation of employees, fraud, misconduct and worse,” Boley tells the Weekly.
Ibarra issues with IRC began when her son began receiving physical therapy in December 2009 through the agency. Then, according to Ibarra and her attorneys, the services were terminated abruptly—for no apparent reason—the following month.
“When that happened, I appealed immediately,” Ibarra says. “My son was going to therapy nine times a month, then it went to zero even as I appealed, and that is illegal since the law says that services are to be maintained throughout the appeal process.”
After four months with no updates about her son’s appeal, Ibarra decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I decided to look up my son’s name in the database, and I was shocked to find [his] name was not even processed,” Ibarra says. She said that after bringing it up to her supervisor, she was disciplined for violating a conflict-of-interest policy.
“When I asked about going to a higher level manager about all of this with my complaints, I was told that I ‘didn’t want to go there,’ which was again a threat and use of intimidation,” she says.
But the problems continued.
“Last year, Ms. Ibarra took time off to take her son to his doctor appointments,” attorney Wilson says. “After she got back to work, she was given a warning. This is a clear violation of the Family [and] Medical Leave Act, and to discipline her was a threat.”
More intimidation followed, her attorneys say.
“Ms Ibarra took another employee of the IRC to her son’s Individualized Educational Plan,” Boley says. “This is a legal meeting that all families of disabled children are entitled to with the school district. The laws on the IEP are clear, and parents can take in any relatives, friend, lawyers and advocates—basically anyone. The IRC is violating the law and they know it.”
Both Wilson and Boley pointed to the IRC audit as a sign that serious problems exist with the agency.
“I have worked with a lot of regional centers, and most people are caring ethical workers,” Boley says. “But the problem is that they are responsible for so much money with very little real oversight or transparency since they are not a public agency. It is not as easy as [firing] everyone because the people they serve are so vulnerable. We need to make sure that their services are not interrupted.”
In terms of Ibarra’s situation, the lawsuit is still pending, IRC did not respond to requests for comment.
“I still feel like the workers are intimidated and this entire process has been very exhausting,” Ibarra says. “But my lawsuit is still continuing. I will never stop fighting for my son and his rights.”