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US Department of Justice Lawsuit Against Georgia Resolved
Comprehensive Agreement Promises to Transform Lives of People Like Kathy Crowder and Lois Curtis

Last week’s landmark settlement between the Department of Justice and the State of Georgia is good news for people like Kathy Crowder, who was a 40-year resident of East Central Regional Hospital’s Gracewood facility in the Augusta area.  When she wanted to move out in 2002 she couldn’t.  She wanted to leave because her friends were no longer there and family could no longer visit as often, but she was forced to stay in the institution simply because community supports were not available.

For seven years she sought services and supports that would allow her to leave the institution.  Today she is in the community and  has an active life in Mableton –  going to church with her family, enjoying concerts like Travis Tritt at the Mableton Amphitheater, shopping at Kohl’s, eating out at Red Lobster, enjoying life with her roommates, and helping others most recently by attending the People First of Georgia conference at Calloway Gardens in August.

“Until last week, people who were institutionalized had little hope they could successfully leave and begin a new life,” Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) (www.gcdd.org) Executive Director Eric E. Jacobson, said.  “We celebrate because this settlement is a huge victory for people like Kathy and Lois Curtis (pictured above) in Georgia’s disability community and sets precedent for enforcement efforts nationwide.”

“We know that all people, including people with developmental disabilities, expect to have options in their lives.  The GCDD concept of Real Communities promotes the idea that everyone deserves to participate in every aspect of life and to pursue Real Careers, Real Homes, Real Learning, Real Influence and Real Supports,” added Jacobson.

The settlement finally enforces the 1999 Olmstead decision and outlines quantifiable steps toward providing essential services and support so the thousands of people with disabilities in Georgia can live in their community rather than in institutions.

Approximately 750 individuals are currently institutionalized in Georgia, each at the annual cost of at least $174,000, according to the DOJ. This compares to $47,000 which is the average cost of providing an individual with developmental disabilities services in their home.

GCDD, the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO) (www.thegao.org), the Institute for Human Development and Disabilities (IHDD) at the University of Georgia, and Georgia State University’s Center for Leadership and Disability (CLD) are leading advocacy organizations that form the State’s developmental disabilities network and worked with the broad coalition of interested parties on the years-long effort to enforce the landmark Supreme Court Olmstead decision. The GAO, the agency designated to implement Protection and Advocacy within the State, participated in the litigation against the State as a “friend of the court.”

“Many people worked very hard on this settlement. And while it isn’t perfect, it goes a long way to set the stage for thousands of people to have appropriate community supports who are unnecessarily institutionalized or at risk of institutionalization in Georgia,” GAO Executive Director Ruby Moore said.  “This settlement outlines over 25 specific deliverables including implementation and quality assurance safeguards so that Georgians with disabilities can live good lives in the community with everyone else.”

The Justice Department began its investigation in 2007, and found that preventable deaths, suicides and assaults occurred with alarming frequency in the state hospitals.  In January 2009, the department entered into a settlement agreement with the state of Georgia regarding conditions in the hospitals.  Further investigation found that the state also failed to serve individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, in violation of the ADA and the Olmstead decision.  In January 2010, the department filed a freestanding complaint under the ADA and a motion for immediate relief seeking to protect individuals confined in the hospitals from continued segregation and from threats of harm to their lives, health and safety.  The department subsequently entered into extensive settlement negotiations with Georgia, the Office for Civil Rights and local mental health advocates.

“For over a decade, our research team at the University of Georgia followed the lives of the people who moved to communities across Georgia from River’s Crossing in Athens,” said Zolinda Stoneman, Ph.D., IHDD Director.  “River’s Crossing was the first institution for people with developmental disabilities to close in our state.”

“Everything we know says that community living is better living,” Daniel Crimmins, Ph.D., CLD Director, said.  “People are connected. They feel better about themselves. They are able to make choices about what to do and when to do it.  With that said, we face the challenge of building the community capacity to support people in leading fulfilling lives.”

The agreement outlines more than 25 specific action items and provides deadlines so that Georgia can serve individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to those individuals’ needs.  Under the agreement, over the next five years, Georgia will increase its assertive community treatment, intensive case management, supported housing and supported employment programs to serve individuals with mental illness in community settings.

The agreement will also:

increase community crisis services to respond to and serve individuals in a mental health crisis without admission to a state hospital, including crisis services centers, crisis stabilization programs, mobile crisis and crisis apartments;

create at least 1,000 Medicaid waivers to transition all individuals with developmental disabilities from the state hospitals to community settings;

and increase crisis, respite, family and housing support services to serve individuals with developmental disabilities in community settings.

Lois Curtis, the surviving plaintiff in the Olmstead Decision, appeared in Atlanta at the February 2009 Disability Day Rally (considered the largest public gathering held annually on the Capitol steps during the official legislative session, sponsored by GCDD) carrying a sign that read “Ten years is long enough.” (pictured above)  As a result of the Olmstead decision Ms. Curtis successfully moved to the community from an institution and has launched a career as an Atlanta folk artist.  During that rally, she helped lead the cheer:  “Get us out, keep us out, don’t put us in.”

“The settlement stands on the shoulders of thousands of advocates in Georgia and across the nation who followed in the steps of Lois Curtis and the late Elaine Wilson in the original Olmstead case that began in Georgia over a decade ago,” Moore said. “We are prepared to activate resources that will make good on the promises outlined by the settlement so all people can live with the dignity and support that is their constitutional right.”

“The work begins in earnest now as we create a foundation to implement a new system to ensure that individuals finally receive the services and supports they need to live in the community,” Jacobson said.  “It will require hard work, commitment and vigilance, but it will be well worth the effort.  Just ask Kathy Crowder.”

Please visit www.justice.gov/crt or www.HHS.GOV to learn more about the Olmstead decision, the ADA and other laws enforced by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  To see the Department of Justice news release, click here:  http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2010/October/10-crt-1165.html.