Suit over treatment of disabled settled for $3 million

Minnesota will pay $3 million and phase out use of restraints to settle a suit over care of developmentally disabled adults.

The state of Minnesota has agreed to pay $3 million and phase out the use of restraints to settle a lawsuit filed by the families of three adults with developmental disabilities who were improperly handcuffed at a state-run facility in Cambridge.

"This is a huge turning point," said Shamus O'Meara, a Minneapolis attorney who represented the families. "This has less to do with the money than it does about defining change for people with developmental disabilities. ... This affects the day-to-day lives of thousands of Minnesotans."

The federal class-action lawsuit stems from a 2008 report by the state's Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, which documented that staff at the state facility routinely put residents in metal hand and ankle restraints to punish them and to control their behavior.

Such restraints were often used for minor behavior problems, not just for safety reasons as is required by law, investigators found.

"With some of the things that were done to the residents, I wouldn't recommend that place to my worst enemy," said James Jensen, whose developmentally disabled son, Bradley, spent a year in the facility after being committed by the state.

"It was like a prison," Jensen said. "They used penal handcuffs. I remember seeing my son after he had been there a few weeks, and his hands were black and blue from the abuse. This was a yearlong nightmare."

State officials said the abuse of restraints, which occurred between 2006 and early 2008, stopped after the Minnesota Department of Health cited the facility for 15 violations. The federal lawsuit was filed by three families in July 2009.

Their lawyer said Tuesday that certain types of restraints are still being used at the Cambridge facility, but not as routinely.

As part of the settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge, the state has now agreed to change that, said the families' attorney, Shamus O'Meara of Minneapolis.

"We don't think there is any place in a private or state institution for mechanical restraints for people with developmental disabilities," he said.

He said that he will work with state officials to determine how many adults with developmental disabilities who were improperly restrained while at the facility will share in the award.

Victims 'didn't commit crime'

Jensen and his wife, Lorie, said they hope "meaningful" changes are made at the facility. Their son, who is no longer in the Cambridge facility, is left with emotional scars from living there, they said.

"We want to make sure this never happens again there," Lorie Jensen said. "Our kids didn't commit a crime. They have a neurological condition where they can't control certain impulses. They aren't psychopath murderers. I met some of those kids, and they're so warmhearted. They're sweethearts."

Though the state admits no liability, according to a news release, the settlement calls for the state Department of Human Services to work with the families and others in the developmental disabilities community to review and modernize practices that govern and protect people with such disabilities.

"We are fully committed to working with families and the disability community to provide the safest and highest-quality care for our most vulnerable citizens," said Dr. L. Read Sulik, DHS assistant commissioner. He said DHS would work toward eventually eliminating the use of seclusion and restraint in treatment settings.

The agreement by state officials to work with the developmental disabilities community should lead to changes in state policies, protocol and appropriate care and treatment of people with developmental disabilities, O'Meara said. "It's something that just hasn't happened before," he said. "To make positive and lasting changes is huge."

'I couldn't be silent'

That's more than welcomed by James Brinker and his partner, Darren Allen, whose son, Thomas, spent "18 very long months" at the Cambridge facility.

Brinker said employees at the facility used handcuffs and leg hobbles to restrain his son and often left Thomas on his stomach for long periods of time.

"You can't do that with someone with asthma," which his son has, he said. "It was not a good experience."

"It was important to be part of this lawsuit," Brinker said. "Silence is acceptance, and in this case, I couldn't be silent."

People with developmental disabilities often can't speak for themselves, he said.

The changes that will be made because of the settlement "will make a difference for everybody and avoid the situation that we experienced," Brinker said.

"This is the start of something new. This is a good step forward."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394 Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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