Department of Human Services rebuked for facility in Cambridge

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2013 - 9:47 AM

The facility for disabled adults in Cambridge operated illegally for 10 months, a federal judge said in wake of a case over restraints.

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Oct. 1, 2013: Deputy commissioner Anne Barry (right).

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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A federal judge has admonished the state Department of Human Services (DHS) for illegally operating a home for people with developmental disabilities in Cambridge, Minn., for 10 months without a license and for concealing the oversight.

The licensing violation raises new questions about safety and oversight of the Cambridge facility, where over a decade’s time about 200 developmentally disabled adults were restrained by staff, sometimes for nothing more than touching a pizza box.

“This violation is anything but a trivial or unimportant matter,” wrote U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, in an order filed with the court Tuesday. “Cambridge residents and their families were entitled to have a facility which complied with fundamental legal requirements.”

In December 2011, as part of a $3 million federal class action settlement, DHS agreed to “immediately and permanently discontinue the use of mechanical restraint,” including handcuffs and leg irons at its facility in Cambridge. The state agency also agreed to extend the terms of the settlement to all state-operated facilities serving people with developmental disabilities.

DHS Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry responded to the order with a statement saying the legal settlement has “resulted in systemwide improvements in Department of Human Services facilities and in the lives of many of the clients we serve.”

DHS said that it has dramatically reduced the use of restraints and seclusion throughout its system and that it is moving a growing number of clients from state facilities to community settings.

In October, the state released a detailed and ambitious plan, known as an Olmstead plan, to expand the range of community and home-based settings for people with disabilities.

In July 2011, the 48-bed facility in Cambridge was shut down as part of a statewide reorganization. It reopened with a new, 16-bed facility known as Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge in the same location.

However, DHS did not submit a license application for the new facility until February 2012. The facility was licensed by the Minnesota Department of Health on April 24, 2012, roughly 10 months after its reopening, according to the judge’s order.

The facility houses about five adults with developmental disabilities who present a risk to the public. It is licensed by both DHS and the Minnesota Department of Health.

Shamus O’Meara, a Minneapolis attorney representing the families in the 2011 class action settlement, said the failure to obtain a license is significant because it meant the Cambridge facility was not subject to regular inspections by state officials to determine if it was still using restraints in violation of the settlement.

O’Meara said there were seven court conferences in which Frank asked for updates on the implementation of the settlement. In all of those meetings, DHS officials failed to disclose that the facility had operated without a license for 10 months, he said.

“It’s not about how many fire extinguishers they have,” O’Meara said. “It’s about the safety and well-being of people with vulnerabilities.”

Mara Renier, a Cambridge resident who lives just four blocks from the facility, said the licensing violation is emblematic of broader problems with public safety at the facility. Renier, who founded a citizens’ group advocating for a safe facility, said the facility has been the source of numerous 911 calls to police, as well as multiple escapes of people with disabilities who are deemed dangerous.

“If DHS can do something like operate without a license for 10 months, what else have they done that we don’t know about?” Renier asked.

In his order, Frank found that DHS “consciously concealed and misled” the court and the plaintiffs in the class action settlement. “The licensing issue was treated in a cavalier manner to the extent that the issue was not immediately forwarded to the appropriate superiors and acted upon,” Frank wrote.

Attorneys in the class action case are seeking $150,000 in sanctions against DHS for the violation. The money would be paid into a court fund to assist people with developmental disabilities and their families.

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