Correction to This Article
A Metro article in the March 3 District edition misspelled the name of Clarence J. Sundram, a special master in a federal class-action lawsuit against the D.C. government that centers on the city's care for people with mental disabilities.

D.C. Gets Warning On Care Of Wards

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

An exasperated federal judge warned the District government yesterday that it is running out of time to demonstrate that it can make meaningful progress in improving care for physically and mentally disabled residents in its long-troubled group homes.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle expressed frustration on being told that the city had failed to meet a 90-day deadline on a court order to move a designated number of group home residents into better, safer housing; help others find assisted employment opportunities; improve health care for at-risk clients; and recruit new group home operators to provide higher-quality care.

"The fact that you can't do the things that you promised to do is a terrible indictment," Huvelle told a packed courtroom. "It's a pretty devastating admission."

Huvelle's comments came during the latest hearing in a 30-year-old class-action lawsuit that centers on the quality of care for people who are mentally disabled wards of the District, many of whom also have severe physical disabilities. The lawsuit was filed in 1976 on behalf of hundreds of residents of Forest Haven, the city's former institution for people with mental retardation.

The judge listened as various parties in the lawsuit, including those representing the District, recounted their disappointment at the city's inability to complete several initiatives aimed at showing that it could improve services for its most vulnerable citizens.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they plan to return to court in the next few weeks to seek additional legal remedies for their clients. Among the options, they said, is filing a request to have the judge place the city's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration in receivership -- a move that could result in an outsider overseeing responsibilities.

"The time has come for a new approach," plaintiffs' counsel Cathy Costanzo of the Center for Public Representation told the judge. "Something more and something different must happen. . . . Our class members suffer daily."

The center is working with University Legal Services in representing the plaintiffs and recently retained a law firm to help in filing for additional action by the court.

Elizabeth Jones, the court monitor in the case, repeated for Huvelle the recent findings of her report on the District's efforts to comply with the judge's orders. She said the health and safety of the city's mentally retarded wards remain in jeopardy because of continuing problems with health care, nutrition and supervision. In November, Jones found that a pattern of neglect had led to four deaths in the past year.

Jones said the city made three of 46 promised housing relocations; found assisted employment for five of 42 people; did not fully implement health care improvements for 48 people; and failed to add any providers to the mix of housing options.

Marie Amato, senior assistant attorney general for the District's Office of the Attorney General, told Huvelle that the District was making headway. She said that since the court monitor's report was filed last month, the agency has completed new health care plans for the 48 clients and has lined up 10 new providers who will offer high-quality housing options for people living in group homes.

Individual contracts with the providers have not been finalized, she said. The District is also closing down several homes operated by a problem contractor.

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