California's developmental centers care for some of the state's most vulnerable residents.

They are profoundly disabled, unable to live with their families or in group homes. Many are severely autistic or have disabilities that limit their ability to defend themselves or even communicate. When they are victims of crime, they deserve an aggressive and thorough response from law enforcement.

Yet all too often they're being shortchanged by the people responsible for protecting them at the Sonoma Development Center and four similar institutions around the state.

Slipshod criminal investigations by the state Office of Protective Services have been detailed in a series of disturbing reports by California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The latest article, which appeared on Thursday in The Press Democrat, described inexplicable failures in dealing with sexual assaults reported at state development centers, including 11 in the past four years at a single unit of the Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge.

The state agency didn't even assign a detective to investigate some of these cases, according to California Watch, and hospital-supervised rape exams — routine in sexual assault cases at almost every other police department — weren't conducted in any of them.

In one case at the Sonoma center, a caregiver was cleared of assault and went on to molest a second patient. In another, state investigators didn't act on a patient's complaint against a staff member. Her pregnancy was overlooked for several months, and she eventually gave birth to a child she is unable to care for. No one was ever arrested.

In previous reports, California Watch exposed the same kind of shoddy police work in a stun-gun assault case and the suspicious death of a patient.

Clearly, the state Office of Protective Services isn't up to the task of protecting residents of the developmental centers.

Worse, it consistently fails to seek help from local law enforcement agencies with greater experience and expertise in handling sexual assaults and other violent crimes.

Under a new state law, developmental centers must alert local police agencies of patient deaths, sexual abuse, certain assaults and unexplained broken bones. But that's not enough. Local police departments and sheriffs should assume jurisdiction for any felony committed at one of the state centers.

Advocates for the disabled have requested such a change, and they have gained an ally in Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch.

"Local law enforcement are better equipped to deal with those types of investigations," she told Staff Writer Paul Payne. "They have all the training and professionals on staff."

More than 1,600 people live in California's developmental centers. Their disabilities make them unusually vulnerable and complicate criminal investigations. Inept police work victimizes them yet again. That's inexcusable.