A federal judge unexpectedly rejected an ambitious state plan to reduce the segregation of people with disabilities and improve access to services, criticizing it for vagueness and an absence of measurable goals.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank is a setback for the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton, which heralded the plan as an example of the state’s commitment to improving the lives of disabled people. The plan, more than two years in the making, was meant to be a detailed road map for eliminating barriers to housing, education, employment and transportation for thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities.
But after numerous revisions, the plan still has “significant shortfalls,” Frank wrote in his ruling Thursday. “Vague assurances of future integrated options is insufficient,” Frank wrote. To be effective, the plan “must demonstrate success in actually moving individuals to integrated settings in furtherance of the goals,” he wrote.
The ruling means the Dayton administration and a bevy of state agencies must return to the drawing board and produce a revised report with actionable goals for moving people with disabilities into more integrated settings. However, the effort to specify how the state will alleviate such persistent problems as the lack of affordable housing or employment opportunities for the disabled will be politically difficult, as many of the reforms will come at a cost to state and county taxpayers.
Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said she was “troubled and disappointed” that the court did not approve the plan, which had already been recommended for approval by a federal court monitor. She said the state is still moving forward with key reforms, such as moving more patients out of state mental hospitals and into the community, even as the state works on a revised version of the plan.
“I believe what we submitted to the court really does represent a good blueprint for moving the state forward,” Jesson said.
The state’s efforts to develop a plan of disability reforms dates back to 2011, amid accusations that developmentally disabled clients at state facilities were being unlawfully restrained and secluded. A two-year investigation by the state Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities found that a state facility in Cambridge, Minn., routinely put residents in metal hand and ankle restraints to punish them — and not just for safety reasons.
As part of a settlement in that case, the state and Minnesota Department of Human Services agreed to produce a plan to increase the number of disabled people receiving services in the “most integrated setting” possible. It was called an “Olmstead plan” after the landmark 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C., which some civil rights advocates have compared to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that banned segregation in public schools.
Producing the plan was a huge undertaking. Officials from eight state agencies — including the Departments of Education, Health, and Transportation — participated in the discussions. A subcabinet appointed by Dayton held listening sessions across the state, from Mankato to Duluth, in which they collected input from hundreds of people, including national experts and disability advocates. The state’s original plan, submitted to the federal court in October 2013, was 131 pages and included 15 pages of timetables.
At the time, Dayton hailed the collaborative effort, saying the plan would help disabled Minnesotans “live with dignity, be valued members of their communities, and make choices to improve the quality of their own lives.”
From the beginning, however, the plan was criticized among disability advocates for being long on principled statements and short on measurable outcomes. “The Olmstead plan was a court-sponsored revolution for people with disabilities,” said Rick Cardenas, co-director of Advocating Change Together, a disability rights group in St. Paul. “But there was a missing piece. [The plan] lacks measurable goals.”
In his ruling, Frank cited a couple of examples in which the plan lacks specificity, including baseline numbers to determine whether stated goals are being met. For instance, in the area of employment, the plan lists “expanding opportunities for adults with disabilities” as a goal. However, the plan offers no specific measurements to determine if this goal is reached. Similarly, the plan lists “access to dental services” as a goal, but includes no specific measurements, wrote Frank in his ruling.
Frank also criticized the state for not reporting accurate and updated numbers on its goals, including the number of disabled people who have moved from segregated settings to integrated settings and quality-of-life measures. Citing these concerns, Frank declined to adopt the Olmstead plan in its current form and gave the state until Nov. 10 to submit a revised plan.
“It’s terrific that the judge is holding the state’s feet to the fire,” said Mary Fenske, a volunteer disability rights advocate from Maple Grove who has a disabled adult son. “The state is big on writing these studies and plans and, all too often, they just go poof in the air.”
However, Jesson made it clear Friday that the state is not waiting for court approval to implement reforms. She noted, for instance, that the state has made progress this year on reducing the number of people at state-operated mental hospitals who no longer need hospital-level care — a goal of the plan.
For instance, the state plan set as a goal reducing unnecessary hospitalizations at Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center. At the time the Olmstead plan was produced, about 40 percent of the patients at the hospital did not need to be there but had nowhere else to go. As of August, the state had lowered that to 32.3 percent, by reducing bottlenecks in the system and expanding community services.
“This plan will always be a living, breathing document,” Jesson said. “We need to create some baselines, what we are measuring from, and make some real progress for people with disabilities.”