Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Minnesotans with disabilities are being forced to live in segregated group homes, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday that asserts that they are cut off from mainstream society and prevented from living in communities of their choosing.
In a class-action suit against the state of Minnesota, attorneys with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid allege that the Department of Human Services maintains a "discriminatory residential service system" that funnels individuals with disabilities into nearly 3,500 group homes statewide, where they are surrounded by other people with disabilities and have little control over their daily lives, while depriving them of access to housing options that would enable them to live more independently.
"People are stuck in these facilities, where they experience isolation, lack of control and an overall helplessness," said Legal Aid attorney Sean Burke. "It's no longer good enough."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services declined to comment, saying Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper had not been served with the lawsuit as of late Wednesday.
Minnesota has long stood out among states for its reliance on private group homes for adults who may have difficulty living independently. After the state began closing large public mental health hospitals in the 1970s, such small, four-bedroom group homes were seen as a more humane and cost-effective alternative.
However, a Star Tribune investigation last year found that many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are sent to group homes against their will, even when they are capable of taking care of themselves. Hundreds are placed more than 100 miles from their families, in settings that leave them isolated from friends, relatives and support networks. The homes are indirectly subsidized through Medicaid, the state and federal health insurance program, which covers the cost of their services.
One plaintiff, Marrie Bottelson, 41, is an artist who would like to create an art studio in her own home. However, Bottelson, who has cerebral palsy, has lived in a group home for 13 years where staffing has severely limited her ability to become more involved in the community, the lawsuit states. Because of staffing patterns in the facility, Bottelson is forced to go to bed at 7 or 8 p.m. because there is no other way for her to receive care for her disability.
For several years, Bottelson has asked case managers and county workers for help moving into an apartment with her best friend, but has been told repeatedly that there are no options other than her group home.
"This is a person who could really be flourishing if she could actually have an apartment and an art studio," said Justin Perl, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid's litigation director. Another plaintiff, Tenner Murphy, 32, has severe physical and cognitive disabilities as a result of a lifelong battle with degenerative brain cancer. Despite this condition, Murphy has developed hobbies, such as archery, and has many non-disabled friends in the community. When he moved to a group home, he was walking on a regular basis, yet the home's managers made him use a wheelchair because they lacked the staff to assist him when he was unable to walk, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit alleges that such restrictions are a violation of a landmark 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as Olmstead, that requires states to ensure that people with disabilities receive services in integrated settings. Under the ruling, public entities are required to provide community-based services when such services are appropriate and when they can be reasonably accommodated.
Under pressure from a federal judge, Minnesota last year became one of the last states in the country to adopt a blueprint — known as an Olmstead plan — to expand community-based options for people with disabilities.
Under that plan, the state planned to move 5,547 people by June 2019 into more integrated housing and pledged to greatly expand community alternatives for Minnesotans with disabilities, though attorneys allege the state still lacks a detailed plan for how to reduce its overreliance on group homes.
"Our clients just want to live where they want and with whom they want, just like people without disabilities," Perl said. "Unfortunately, the system Minnesota has created for them has needlessly segregated them from the rest of the society."
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308