NC judge orders community services for more people with disabilities. The state objects, saying the deadlines are unrealistic.

Thousands of people with disabilities would receive services to help keep them out of institutions, and a waiting list of more than 16,000 North Carolinians needing direct care would be whittled to zero over 10 years under a sweeping court order issued this week.

Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour’s order follows his 2020 decision that the state is breaking the law by failing to provide needed services that would enable people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live outside institutions. The order is part of the “Samantha R.” lawsuit Disability Rights NC filed in 2017 on behalf of people who were institutionalized or faced institutionalization.

“It’s a very big deal,” said Tim Rhoney, Samantha’s father.

Samantha R. is Samantha Rhoney, 33, whose parents admitted her to the state’s J. Iverson Riddle Developmental Center in Morganton under duress after the regional mental health agency cut back the in-home services she received. After seven years in the Riddle Center, she has now has her own place and 24-hour assistance.

“Our hope was, even though this happened to my daughter, Samantha, and she suffered, that it would help other people,” Tim Rhoney said. “Their time’s up. They’re going to have to help these people.”

The court order means people with disabilities can live to their full potential, said Samantha’s mother Dana Rhoney. The Riddle Center is wonderful, she said, and her daughter attends a day program there. But she should not be forced to live there.

“The Institute is a wonderful place,” and a great resource for people who need it, she said. “There are some individuals due to their disabilities that this is the appropriate placement. There are those like my daughter who can thrive in the community, and they need extra support. That’s the point. Don’t limit their lives because they have to have some special care for them to function in the community.”

The order sets timetables for moving people out of institutions and actions the state must take to keep people from entering them. The order includes annual benchmarks, with 25% of the yearly requirement to be met by transitioning people from institutions and into community settings. The other 75% of the requirement would be people successfully kept from being admitted.

“It means that they should have a real option to make an informed decision to be served in the community,” said Lisa Grafstein, a lawyer with Disability Rights NC.

No one would be forced to leave a place where they wanted to stay, she said. “The idea is to create community services that have not existed in the past.” she said.

The state must also cut the list of people waiting for services under the Innovations Waiver, a source of Medicaid money for community-based care, from more than 16,000 people to zero by July 1, 2032.

The order may not be the last word. The state Department of Health and Human Services disagrees with it. Read more

Election fraud rhetoric is a troubling sign for democracy, a Duke political scientist says

Adriane Fresh, Duke University

Candidates repeating the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen and saying they won’t accept election results unless they win “is worrying and has implications for the stability of our democracy,” a Duke University political scientist said this week.

A New York Times investigation found that most Republicans running for Congress, governor, attorney general or secretary of state this year questioned or denied the 2020 presidential election results.

About half of U.S. adults are very confident that votes in the midterm election will be counted accurately, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, but 45% of Republicans have little or no confidence in the accuracy of the vote count.

Democracy is not simply a set of institutions, Duke political scientist Adriane Fresh told reporters this week but also “the shared belief that those institutions are functioning according to their intended rules. Research shows that democracy is fragile absent citizen belief in its legitimacy.”

Election offices have been bombarded with requests for public records from election deniers, WUNC has reported. Fresh said she was not worried that fulfilling those requests has taken officials away from election preparations because laws allow flexibility in how quickly documents must be supplied. But those massive requests may have long-term consequences if election offices don’t have enough people or money to respond, or if the inundation contributes to experienced officials leaving and keeps others from accepting those jobs.

People who talk about election integrity but work to undermine it and back candidates who support undemocratic processes reveal “a concerning apathy for democracy,” Fresh said.

“Overall, when we consider the clear evidence that our democratic institutions function freely and fairly it becomes more clear that many people are using this rhetoric of democratic integrity for partisan or otherwise undemocratic purposes,” she said.

NC Democrats want consideration for new gun laws and mental health funding after Raleigh mass shooting

With the pain of last week’s mass shooting in Raleigh still new, North Carolina Democratic legislators pushed the Republican majority to consider gun safety laws and increase funding for mental health care.

Sen. Dan Blue

Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue lives in the northeast Raleigh neighborhood where a shooter killed five people and injured two others outside their homes or along a nearby greenway trail.

“I’ve lived in the Hedingham community for over 30 years,” Blue said at a news conference Tuesday. “I never felt I would be unsafe in this community where we raised our kids until last week when we had a shooting that left five people dead.”

The 15-year-old suspect is hospitalized in critical condition.

“We always think, when we hear of the latest mass shooting on the news, that it can’t happen to us,” Blue said. “It can, and it did. Democrats have been calling for common sense gun safety measures for years. It’s time that these proposals finally be given serious consideration.”

Democrats for years have not been able to convince Republicans to consider stricter gun laws. Pro-gun activists and the National Rifle Association hold great sway in the legislature. The NRA Political Victory Fund is a reliable contributor to Republican politicians. In 2020, the NRA fund donated the maximum allowed to the campaigns of House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate leader Phil Berger, and the Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Dan Forest and Mark Robinson, Spectrum News reported.

The offices of Moore and Berger did not respond Tuesday afternoon to emails requesting comment.

Legislators have been unable to solve problems because issues become political, said House Democratic leader Robert Reives of Chatham County. The state needs bipartisan discussions on gun laws. “Imagine what could happen if we just sat down and talked,” he said. “Let’s take this off the table of politics and let’s be better.”

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, listed the proposed gun laws he’s filed over the years that have not gotten committee hearings – bills to ban gun purchases by people on the FBI terrorist watch list, to ban bump stocks, and to raise the age to 21 for the purchase of assault weapons.

“Is now the time for a discussion of gun reform, or do we have to have another mass shooting?” he asked rhetorically.

State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, has proposed three “red flag law” bills over the years that have never gotten committee hearings. Red flag laws allow people to ask a court to take someone’s firearms away for a period of time if they convince a judge that the person is a danger to themselves or others. Nineteen states have such laws.

Morey said she is working on a fourth red flag proposal and is talking to Republicans to incorporate their ideas.

“We must do something, or this carnage will continue,” she said.

Blue said the state needs to adequately fund mental health services for children and adults. He called for funding to allow schools to hire more psychologists. “Mental health is something we have the resources to do something about,” he said.

No motive in the Hedingham shootings has been publicly identified.

Research has shown that most mass shooters do not have mental illnesses. Mental health professionals say that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crime than commit crimes.

Blue said it was important to have both effective gun laws and enough school staff to help troubled students.

Labor shortage hitting NC health department means fewer people served

The job vacancy rate at the state Department of Health and Human Services has nearly doubled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and staff shortages have limited the state’s ability to provide services, DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley told legislators this week.

NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley

Twenty-three percent of DHHS jobs were vacant in July, while 12.7% were vacant in March 2020, Kinsley said at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services.

The state runs three psychiatric hospitals, three neuro-medical treatment centers, three alcohol and drug abuse treatment centers, three developmental centers, and two residential programs for children.

Forty-four percent of registered nurse and clinical social worker jobs at the state-run facilities are vacant, Kinsley said. Forty-two percent of psychologist jobs are vacant, as are 30% of healthcare technician positions.

The department has spent $65 million on money that would have gone to salaries on more expensive contract staff.

The number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals declined, according to DHHS, while the need for services and the time on waitlists has increased.

“We have 2,341 fewer people served today than five years ago because of staff shortages,” Kinsley said.

The annual turnover rate of DHHS jobs has also increased since March 2020.

Annual job turnover at the Black Mountain Neuro Medical Treatment Center hit 72% in July according to the department. The Buncombe County labor market was tight even before COVID, Kinsley said. Health care workers there have a lot of employment options, he said, and some employees were burned out.

“I can’t increase pay,” Kinsley “There are a number of policies around hiring and recruitment – who can be bonused and who cannot.”

Two legislators said they would be willing to consider ideas for tackling the worker shortage when the legislature returns to full-time work next year.

“Put together a plan so when we come back, we can have action items we can look at,” said Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Winston-Salem Republican and co-chairman of the oversight committee.

Sen. Jim Perry, a Lenoir County Republican, said the department may need “some flexibilities” in determining wages. “I would be in support of having discussion about temporary changes,” he said.

NC Supreme Court hears voter ID case

The state Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in an appeal of a lower court decision from last year that struck down a state law requiring a photo ID to vote.

The Republican-led legislature passed the law in a 2018 lame duck session before they lost their supermajority, and overturned Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of Superior Court judges said last year that law put a greater burden on African American voters and was motivated, at least in part, by an unconstitutional intent to target them.

This isn’t the first time that North Carolina Republicans have passed a law requiring voters show photo ID at the polls.

A sweeping 2013 elections law included a voter photo ID requirement that was in place for the 2016 primary before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated it.  In its July 2016 opinion, the federal appeals court concluded the 2013 law was discriminatory and that legislators crafted it to disallow the types of alternative IDs most used by African Americans.

The 2013 law played a role in last year’s trial on the 2018 law, as expert witnesses and the judges in their opinions compared the old law to the new.

“What weight should be given to legislative history in terms of looking at discriminatory intent?” Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan asked Pete Patterson, the lawyer representing Republican legislators.

Patterson said the Superior Court majority’s decision “presumed bad faith at every turn.”

The new voter ID law was more protective of voters than the old law, Patterson said, and included a “sweeping reasonable impediment provision.” That process would have allowed people without IDs to cast provisional ballots if they signed affidavits saying why they didn’t have one.

However, an expert told the Superior Court judges that African American voters were less likely to have the types of photo ID needed to vote, more likely to have to use the “reasonable impediment” process. The trial court opinion said that African Americans would be more likely to have to obtain an ID needed to vote and would have a harder time doing so because of the history of racial discrimination.

Jeff Loperfido, senior counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, argued that the legislative history and historical background are important.

“The harm here under an equal protection challenge is that voters are being treated differently and that the fundamental right to vote for certain individuals is being burdened in a way that is falling disproportionately on them,” Loperfido said.

Voter impersonation that Republicans contend the ID law would combat is rare. The trial court said it is “almost nonexistent” in North Carolina.

“There is certainly insufficient evidence to conclude that the desire to combat voter fraud was an actual motivation of the legislature in passing” the bill, the majority opinion said.