For decades, public policymakers have admirably worked to move developmentally and intellectually disabled Minnesotans out of aging state hospitals and into community care settings.
While the state has succeeded more than most in doing so, an ambitious Star Tribune news series has made it clear that enlightened public policy today doesn’t stop at deinstitutionalization. It must include ongoing innovation to integrate the lives of the disabled — not just their residences — into their communities.
It will require scrutiny of public assistance programs to ensure that they are helping a new generation of disabled Minnesotans reach their full potential, including those who desire self-reliance. While Minnesota is making important strides on these issues, it clearly has more work to do.
The five-part “A Matter of Dignity” series that started Nov. 8 was the culmination of months of reporting by writers Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt. Among the important issues covered: sheltered workshops that offer little dignity and opportunity, the troubling practice of having group homes clustered far from residents’ families, and the unacceptable wait lists for the disabled to access assistance.
Serres also traveled to Vermont to provide an in-depth look at a state that has ceased funding sheltered workshops and provides individualized services to help disabled residents find private-sector jobs. While Minnesota officials have worked to make similar services available here for those who desire them, these options are often overshadowed in a state system so reliant on sheltered workshops.
It’s important to note that Minnesota ranks seventh nationally among states for financial support of community services for the disabled, according to the most recent annual report distributed by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. It also ranks third for its utilization of community residential services, which shows decreased reliance on institutional care.
Still, “A Matter of Dignity” paints a portrait of a system in need of new energy and stronger legislative support to expand modernization efforts already begun by the state Department of Human Services. An in-depth review — either by the Legislature or a task force — that examines how best practices have evolved is overdue.
The series provides a jumping-off point for these discussions. The desire for more individualized job services is worthy of discussion. So are questions the series raised about group home locations and whether the state is too wedded to the four-bedroom group home concept.
The series also put welcome scrutiny on Minnesota counties’ reluctance to spend millions of dollars in state aid to reduce waiting lists for services and supports. While Gov. Mark Dayton worked with the Legislature last year to give state officials more tools to shrink waiting lists, it’s not yet clear if those strategies are effective or if more needs to be done. A key question: Would consolidation of county human services delivery, an idea pitched by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, yield not only efficiencies but better results?
It’s important to underscore that Minnesota’s long history of generous programs for the disabled means that the state is in a good place as reforms are considered. Unlike so many thorny policy debates, the question isn’t necessarily how much more money is needed but how current sums could be better spent. The Star Tribune series provided a smart road map for possible reforms. Policymakers should use it.