Federal lawyers assailed at Fairfax meeting by relatives of developmentally disabled

Families frustrated by Virginia’s decision to close most of its large institutions for the developmentally disabled took aim this week at the federal civil rights lawyers whose investigation set in motion the plan to wind down the facilities.

In an emotional meeting Wednesday night in Fairfax County, relatives of residents of the Northern Virginia Training Center blamed the Justice Department lawyers for what the relatives said was a lack of openness in the process that led to Virginia's settlement last month.

The lawyers, Benjamin O. Tayloe Jr. and Aaron B. Zisser, both of the special litigation section, played down the department’s role in the decision to close four of the five state training centers, including the Northern Virginia facility, on Braddock Road.

Tayloe said that the choice had been solely Virginia’s and that Justice’s goal was to pressure the state to create more community-based care for people with developmental disabilities.

“At the end of the day, the state can decide if it wants to stay in the business of running these facilities,” Tayloe said. “The agreement drives the system toward the most integrated setting” that meets the needs of people with developmental disabilities.

But many of the families reacted angrily to the remarks. They said the federal government appeared to be distancing itself from a controversial decision and the uncertainty it had created.

After learning that a reporter was present at the meeting, which was held in the auditorium of the Fairfax County Government Center, the Justice lawyers briefly interrupted the gathering to say everything was “off the record.” The Washington Post considered the gathering to be a public meeting and continued to report on it as such.

The lawyers told the families that they should feel confident that the transition ahead would be open to public scrutiny.

Many groaned when the lawyers suggested that the state would not violate the settlement if the training centers remained open. “It’s political. Everybody you talk to blames somebody else,” said Bob Anthony, whose son lives at the Northern Virginia center.

Under a 10-year, $2.1 billion settlement reached last month, Virginia said it will close all but one of five large institutions and move hundreds of people with disabilities into family homes or group homes. The decision came after decades of studies and legislative reports showing that Virginia lagged behind other states in integrating people with disabilities into the community.

The move is supported by some advocacy groups, such as the Arc of Virginia, which say Virginia has violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by failing to integrate people with disabilities into the community. Several people at Wednesday’s meeting expressed gratitude for the federal intervention and the settlement’s guarantee that the state will commit additional resources to community care.

But others said they feared that their loved ones would be removed from an institution that provides safe, intensive care into a promised network of group homes and other community-based settings that might not meet their needs.

“What are those options for those facilities?” asked Jeanne Ludwig, 39, of Fairfax Station, whose brother lives at the training center. “Where are you going to put 157 kids who have potentially been told they can’t go anywhere else?”

Several family members said afterward that the meeting was typical of a process that has been closed and has failed to take their wishes into account.

In an interview, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel said that although the Justice’s legal action did not specify that Virginia should close down most of its large institutions, the state has few options.

“The long and short of it, after negotiating with Justice, is that it would have meant building a new system,” Hazel said. “The simple fact is, with the economics what they are, we can’t operate a system like we had and build a community-based system like the lawsuit wants.”

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