Public corruption charges have been the main attraction down at the District’s federal courthouse of late, but other momentous D.C. government matters quietly soldier on there — such as the long-standing class-action lawsuits concerning the city’s provision of human services.
D.C. officials were in court Tuesday facing Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle and lawyers representing the approximately 550 District residents suffering from developmental disabilities and in the city’s care. They were asking for more time to comply with a court-imposed improvement plan that is now over a decade old.
Two years ago, city officials were confident that they were close to fixing the District’s system of care for the developmentally disabled — perhaps the most vulnerable of D.C. residents — and ending a history of court oversight that dates to 1976.
Now, with an August compliance deadline approaching, plaintiffs’ lawyers and a trio of independent court-appointed officers have made it clear that the city is nowhere near that point.
Progress has been made: A court administrator appointed to help oversee the District’s developmental disabilities agency has reported that the city has met staff training requirements and is on the cusp of meeting requirements in certain other areas.
But all told, the District has met only two of nearly 70 compliance criteria and, more broadly, is approaching the goals it agreed to in only three of nine areas. And the remaining six areas are some of the most nettlesome, including case management and care quality assurance.
“We do not believe we’re looking at a situation where we’re close to achieving compliance,” said Cathy Costanzo, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Laura L. Nuss, director of the D.C. Department on Disability Services, said the city was making better progress than the plaintiffs and court officers recognized and predicted that the improvements could be complete within a year.
“My attorneys keep telling me not to say that, but that is what the program believes,” Nuss said. “There’s a number of ways to look at data and it’s not always the worst side of the fence.”
Huvelle, at the hearing’s outset, put it this way: “As is often the case, we have a mixed bag.”
The court administrator, Kathy E. Sawyer, suggested giving the city an additional 18 months to comply with the 2010 plan. But the plaintiffs made the suggestion, and Sawyer agreed, to ask Huvelle for only a six-month extension — through February — to gauge the District’s further progress.
If the city hasn’t shown significant progress by that time, Costanzo said, the plaintiffs will likely seek “further relief” — that is, give Sawyer more authority to order changes in the city agency.
Huvelle granted that request, then addressed Beatriz “B.B.” Otero, the District’s deputy mayor for health and human services, who also attended the hearing: “We need all the help we can get from you. Leadership is what we need.”
After the hearing, Otero expressed confidence that sufficient progress will be made in the next six months to prevent what would be an embarrassing loss of administrative control for her boss, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
“From what I’ve seen over the past year and a half,” she said, “we’re on the right track.”
In a related development, Nuss said in court that troubled group homes owned by Individual Development Inc. could soon be sold to a well-regarded nonprofit.
IDI, which operates 11 group homes, has been frequently criticized by authorities and patient advocates for “systemic problems” in providing care. Its president and chairman is David W. Wilmot, a prominent city lawyer and lobbyist whose IDI-paid salary had been called into question.
Wilmot announced this year that he was shuttering IDI, and he said Tuesday that a sale of the group homes was “fairly close.” A meeting with the potential buyer, Maryland-based Volunteers of America Chesapeake, is set for next week, he said.