Since 1997, about 200 of the 300 people living at a state facility for the developmentally disabled in Cambridge were restrained by staff, sometimes for nothing more than touching a pizza box. Now, they will share in a $3 million settlement of a federal class action lawsuit.
The settlement this week finalizes a tentative agreement reached last fall and bars the state from using handcuffs or other restraints, except in emergencies, at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) facility.
"It's fairly obvious to me that there was just a widespread misuse of restraints and seclusion, and it needed to be discontinued," said Shamus O'Meara, a Minneapolis lawyer who sued the state on behalf of three former residents.
Under the agreement, each of the three original plaintiffs will receive $75,000. Other former residents may get from $200 to $300,000, depending on how often they were restrained. Most will receive less than $3,000 apiece, according to court documents.
The METO facility is scheduled to close next week as part of a statewide reorganization. But the agreement will apply to its "successor facility," the Minnesota Specialty Health System in Cambridge, which will house up to 16 residents. The METO program, which opened in 1997, housed up to 60 developmentally disabled people, many committed by courts for aggressive behavior.
Some say the settlement will help close a dark chapter in Minnesota history. "I think the significance is, there won't be people in leg shackles and handcuffs anymore," said Scott Schifsky, program director for The Arc Minnesota, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. He said there are more effective and humane ways of controlling behavior, such as psychological approaches and crisis teams.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services which ran METO, admitted that staff members overused restraints during a two-year period. "We were clearly using restraints for more than just emergency purposes," said Anne Barry, deputy commissioner.
The practices were halted in 2008, after an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health uncovered the abuses and cited the facility for 15 violations.
In 2009, families of three former residents sued, accusing the facility of "abusive, inhumane, cruel and improper" treatment. They said residents were restrained for such minor infractions as disobeying staff.
The state denied the allegations. But Barry said the settlement should help improve care, in part by encouraging a shift to smaller, more intimate settings. "When people are in smaller more homelike environments in the community, you see some pretty remarkable changes in people's behavior," she said.
The state also agreed to spend nearly $1 million on additional staff and training for community programs for the developmentally disabled, using funds now budgeted for METO. It also will set up committees to help ensure that people with disabilities can live in the least-restrictive settings possible.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384