For the second time in eight months, a federal judge has rebuked the state of Minnesota over its plan to modernize services for thousands of residents with disabilities, threatening court sanctions if the state fails to improve its performance.
In a blunt ruling issued Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said the state's revised blueprint — known as an Olmstead plan — failed to meet his earlier demands for precision and measurable goals. The 158-page plan, nearly three years in the making and crafted with input from eight state agencies, has been revised three times without passing court muster.
The decision is an embarrassing setback for Gov. Mark Dayton's administration and could delay efforts to improve access to community-based jobs and housing for thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities and mental illnesses.
Minnesota has lagged behind most other states in adopting an Olmstead plan, named after a landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision that required states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities.
"This order is a wake-up call," said Roberta Opheim, the State Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. "How long will [the state] continue to get by with noncompliance before the court requires them to pay a price?"
Over the past two years, Frank repeatedly has scolded the Minnesota Department of Human Services and other state agencies for the slow pace and vague goals of their efforts to increase the number of people receiving services in community settings instead of institutions.In Wednesday's order, the judge warned of sanctions if the delays continued and gave the state until July 10 to submit a revised plan.
"The time has come to truly serve the best interests of individuals with disabilities within the state of Minnesota," Frank wrote. "Justice requires no less."
In a statement, Mary Tingerthal, chair of the subcabinet appointed by Gov. Dayton to oversee implementation of the Olmstead plan, said the state remains "committed to realizing the vision" set forth in the plan of delivering services to people with disabilities in the most integrated setting. "The good work we have already started will continue while we revise the plan," she wrote.
Praise, then a rebuke
The judge's latest rebuke stands in sharp contrast to the praise heaped on the first draft of the Olmstead plan when it was released — five months after its original due date — in November 2013. At the time, Dayton issued a statement saying the plan would "help empower Minnesotans of all abilities" to live with dignity and be "valued members of their communities."
Now, two drafts and hundreds of pages of court documents later, disability advocates say the plan is still long on promises but short on firm timetables and measurable goals.
For instance, the Olmstead subcabinet recently adopted an "employment first" policy, which says that competitive, integrated employment should be the first option for people with disabilities seeking supportive services. However, in a court brief, the Minnesota Disability Law Center said the plan offers no way of tracking how individuals make choices between segregated workplaces, known as "sheltered workshops" or day programs, where people with disabilities often make less than the minimum wage, and more integrated settings.
Because the plan offers no system for reporting on how people spend their work hours, it is impossible to set transparent goals or to track progress, the center argued in its brief.
"The plan … still does not contain sufficient sound baseline data, measurable goals or outcomes," the center wrote in an April 6 letter sent to the Olmstead subcabinet and filed with the court.
Among disability rights advocates, the Olmstead ruling has often been compared in its significance to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which banned segregation in public schools.
In recent years, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has interpreted the Olmstead ruling broadly, using it as a way to pressure states to expand integrated housing and work options for the disabled. For instance, last year the Justice Department reached a legal settlement with Rhode Island that required the state to move people out of segregated, sheltered workshops and into the general workforce.
Since the 1999 ruling, nearly three quarters of states have developed formal Olmstead plans.