State wants to suspend court order for disability services and housing while it appeals

Samantha Rhoney, courtesy Disability Rights NC

The state should not have to meet some of the standards set out in a court order for keeping or moving people with disabilities into community housing and for addressing needs for in-home care while it appeals, a lawyer for the state Department of Health and Human Service told a judge Friday.

The lack of money, housing, direct care workers and nurses make it impossible for the state to meet requirements Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour set last year to dramatically reduce institutionalization of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and provide more people with community aid, the state said in a court brief filed before Friday’s hearing.

In November, Baddour issued a sweeping order in the “Samantha R.” lawsuit brought by Disability Rights North Carolina on behalf of people who are institutionalized or face institutionalization. Among other actions, the order required the state to pare the list of 16,000 people waiting for community services over time and to eliminate it in 10 years.

The lawsuit is named for Samantha Rhoney, whose parents admitted her to a state institution under duress because their daughter could not receive services she needed to live at home. Rhoney recently moved from the state’s J. Iverson Riddle Development Center to a home near her parents.

At the hearing Friday, a lawyer for Disability Rights said the state should not keep stalling while people’s needs remain unmet.

“Fundamentally, the issue is whether the rights and lives of people will be sacrificed in deference to the same systems that have been failing them for decades,” said Lisa Grafstein, a Disability Rights lawyer who also serves as a member of the state Senate from Wake County.

Baddour seemed skeptical of some of the state’s claims. He did not issue a ruling Friday morning.

The state wants to put a hold on most of the meatiest parts of Baddour’s order – increasing access to community-based services and transitioning or diverting people from institutions – while its appeal is ongoing.

Under the order, DHHS should move at least 25 people out of institutions and keep another 75 or so from having to move into an institution by Jan. 1, 2024 and move 1,631 people off the waiting list for in-home or community services by July 1 of this year.

By Jan. 1, 2031, the state should have moved 3,000 people from institutions into community settings or have kept them from moving into institutions in the first place.

Meeting the order’s requirements would force DHHS to divert its attention from its long-term plans to achieve short-term goals, said state Deputy Attorney General Michael Wood.

“Money, human capital, diverted resources, and a complete retinkering of the state’s historic planning, strategic planning. The planning for the long-term is going to have to be pushed aside and emergency, rapid, short-term planning is going to be imposed with the eye towards meeting the July 1 date and the other dates that follow,” Wood said.

In his November order, Baddour criticized DHHS for not following recommendations detailed in its own plan.

On Friday, Baddour questioned the contention that DHHS would be irreparably harmed by following his order during its appeal.

DHHS seems to be perpetually developing plans that it doesn’t act on, Baddour said.

“In some ways, I feel like for two or three years it’s been ‘planning, planning, planning,’ and when it comes time to act, now we want to say ‘the planning still needs to happen.’ So instead of acting, we need to plan. What about the people who need the services and what about doing something for them? When does that happen?” Baddour asked.

Grafstein said the goals set out for DHHS in the order over the next year or two are modest.

The core issue is whether the state is going to address the conditions that keep people institutionalized, she said.

“The state has shown it won’t do those things voluntarily,” Grafstein said. “It won’t get at the core of the problems with the I/DD system. And that’s why we’ve asked for accountability.”

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