Attleboro residents decry abuse

By Max Lewontin,Sun Chronicle, State House correspondent

BOSTON – Responding to reports of physical and emotional abuse of elderly and disabled residents in subsidized Attleboro housing, a group of local residents joined others Tuesday in urging lawmakers to support of a bill aimed at ending the abuse across the commonwealth.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, is modeled on similar regulations to combat bullying in schools.

It was filed on behalf of Jerry Halberstadt, 77, who lives in HUD-subsidized housing in Peabody and is an anti-abuse activist.

“The current regulatory framework is totally inadequate,” Michael Kane, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Public Housing Tenants, told members of the Joint Committee on Housing.

“People should not have to live in a climate of fear and intimidation because they have no other place to go,” he said.

Kane said the bill left open the question of what agency would handle reports of bullying at each development. He noted that oversight by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the quasi-public MassHousing has not been adequate.

The bill would mandate reporting of bullying and require training for public housing managers and employees on how to handle such incidents without retaliation against alleged victims.

The lack of training to handle bullying complaints has been a consistent issue, according to several residents who testified Tuesday.

They said managers and other employees at several developments had ignored their concerns, or sided with the residents who were doing the bullying.

“Bullies and those who allow bullying to continue must be held accountable,” said David Daugman, a former resident of Gardner Terrace on Pine Street in Attleboro.

The hearing turned emotional as Attleboro residents described being bullied by other residents and ignored by management.

They said that instead of addressing their complaints, some managers threatened them with eviction if they reported the incidents to police.

Gardner Terrace, which is privately owned but subsidized by state funding, came under particular criticism.
A former disabled resident, who only identified herself as Margaret, testified that she had repeatedly been bullied by elderly residents.

In her long and sometimes emotional testimony, she said that after she complained to the building manager, the bullying increased, as threats and taunts turned to physical and emotional abuse.

At one point, she said her arm was injured in the building’s laundry room, making it difficult to eat and rendering her unable to leave her room. She was eventually evicted from the development after residents who allegedly were bullying her complained about her to the management and Attleboro police.

“Management’s main concern is to keep the building quiet, and it’s easy to get rid of the most intimidated and the most vulnerable,” she said. “It’s very important to have a statewide law.”

A call requesting comment from Gardner Terrace management was not returned.

Legislators were mostly supportive of the bill.

“This is a very good bill,” said Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, adding he had first been approached about the issue by a resident who had been bullied and feared retaliation. “It’s very comprehensive and well-drafted.”

Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, D-Dorchester, who is a member of the joint committee, said that bullying in public housing has also been an issue in her district.

“It does not make sense that we would allow this behavior to go on in the commonwealth, even in Gardner Terrace, which is privately owned,” she said.

Halberstadt, who drafted the bill after doing research into long-term effects of bullying on the elderly and disabled, said that in the future, legislators might consider defining bullying as a hate crime.

For now, he said, the goal was to provide more immediate oversight over bullying complaints.

“People in this situation need relief quickly because (bullying) is so damaging,” Halberstadt said.