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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 21, 2006

Death raises questions and we want answers

No other media, besides The Enterprise, has covered the death of Mabel Speanburg.


Perhaps because it has been hard to find out about it.

Ms. Speanburg was a New Visions resident and we were told of her death by workers at New Visions, an organization that has group homes, apartments, and a day facility to serve people who are mentally retarded or have developmental disabilities.

How could an accident have happened on a public road that no one outside of New Visions knew much about" Was someone really dead because of it" We could find no family to talk to.

It took our reporter, Jarrett Carroll, several days to piece together the circumstances of Ms. Speanburg’s death. We began by filing Freedom of Information Law requests with three different police agencies for records that didn’t exist.

Mr. Carroll got the first piece of useful information from a rescue squad member who knew about the accident. From that, he could find out more.

On Nov. 6, Ms. Speanburg, a 60-year-old who used a wheelchair, was being transported in a New Visions van from the main facility on Krumkill Road in Bethlehem when it collided with another New Visions van in front of hers after the lead van stopped abruptly.

Mr. Carroll learned this from the Bethlehem Police who said that, at about 3:21 p.m. on that Monday, they assisted an ambulance on Krumkill Road after they received a call stating, "A 60-year-old woman fell out of her wheelchair inside an assisted van."

The Western Turnpike Rescue Squad responded to the accident and transported Ms. Speanburg to St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany.

"We treated her for lacerations and for a possible head injury," said Howard Huth, chief of operations for the rescue squad.

According to Albany City Hall’s vital statistics department, Ms. Speanburg died two days later, on Nov. 8, at St. Peter’s Hospital.

"It was a tragic, tragic accident that touched all of us deeply," said Margie Sheehan, director of communications for New Visions.

Every death is painful to the people who knew and loved the person who died.

But a death resulting from an accident is troubling to those beyond friends and family, and often merits media coverage. Ms. Speanburg’s death raised even more troubling questions.

More than a month after Mabel Speanburg died, the executive director of New Visions, Andrew McKenzie, was unwilling to answer our questions about the crash. He said the incident is still under investigation by New Visions and that it would be "irresponsible" to release details prematurely.

New Visions workers told us that Ms. Speanburg did not have her seat belt on and they said that, with just one staff member on the van, clients cannot be properly maintained. They also made other allegations about the circumstances surrounding the crash that we chose not to print because we could not substantiate them.

Mary Cox of the Bethlehem Police said no written report was filed because no tickets were issued at the accident.

We filed a request under the New York’s Freedom of Information Law with the state’s Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, which is charged with investigating such accidents. The request was filed on Dec. 11; an agency has five days to respond, according to state law. We’ve gotten no response.

We don’t want to jump to conclusions. Perhaps, if we were able to obtain reports on the accident, we’d find nothing awry. Perhaps we’d learn that Ms. Speanburg was properly secured in the van and died of unrelated causes at the hospital.

We have, in the past, lauded New Visions, its group homes and programs. We believe that well-run homes for the disabled are not only good for the home’s residents but for the community at large. We have fought prejudice to site such homes and will continue to do so.

Residents of these homes, those with mental disabilities, are the most vulnerable among us. If it turns out to be true that lack of staffing led to a client not being properly secured in a van, we need to know so that action can be taken to prevent it from happening again.

A letter-writer this week said we owe New Visions an apology for last week’s front-page story on Ms. Speanburg’s death and the questions it raised.

Rather, we believe New Visions owes us some answers. And so does the state office charged with overseeing such programs.

Mr. McKenzie told us last week that deaths are usually private family matters and New Visions residents are all one big family. In response to workers’ allegations that the death was covered up, Mr. McKenzie said no order was ever given about not talking to the media, but, according to standard operating procedures, as with many companies, a chain is developed in order to deal with media relations.

"Not even the board of directors is allowed to talk to the press," said Mr. McKenzie. No one would be asked to cover up the details of a "loved one’s" death, he said.

So let’s have the details. Surely six weeks is enough time to have investigated a two-van crash. A death that results from an accident on a public road, involving workers and residents of a facility that uses public funds is not a private matter. The police and the Office of Mental Retardation are both public agencies that should provide details as well.

We owe it to Ms. Speanburg, and others like her, to find the answers.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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