Judge continues oversight of Washington's care of disabled

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

A federal judge on Friday rejected the District's bid to end the court oversight imposed 33 years ago as part of a class action lawsuit over the care of people with developmental disabilities.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said the important organizational changes the city had made were only beginning to show results and were hardly enough to ensure that the improvements would last.

"It's not just creating a structural umbrella to make things better," the judge said at the close of a day and a half of hearings in the case, Evans v. Fenty. "We've got to see it on the ground."

A new mayor, a new attorney general and a new agency aren't enough to justify ending the court's role in the case, Huvelle said. Delivering her decision from the bench, Huvelle took aim at the office of D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, saying his hard-line legal strategy in the case was not serving anyone's interest, least of all the 600 people whose care the court is charged with overseeing.

"I say this to the attorney general: You have responsibilities to the public, to the vulnerable people involved here and to the taxpayers," Huvelle said. "If you think court intervention is evil, come up with a way to resolve this case through a remedy."

In an interview, Nickles said he has been working to do just that for three years but the plaintiffs are intent on having a court-appointed receiver run the Department of Disability Services, no matter what improvements the agency makes. "It's very frustrating because DDS, like a lot of our agencies, has done a lot of good things," Nickles said.

Nickles has been leading the effort to end the lawsuit and several other long-running class actions involving social services and the special education system.

After a Supreme Court ruling in June, the attorney general has argued in one class action after another that the ruling in Horne v. Flores effectively mandated an end to cases such as Evans.

The original constitutional violations that spawned the cases were corrected long ago, according to the city's argument, and orders that obligate the District to reach various benchmarks should be thrown out.

Huvelle's decision, which she said she will lay out in a written opinion, is not binding on other federal District Court judges who are considering similar requests.

Filed in 1976, Evans was prompted by horrific conditions at Forest Haven in Laurel, which housed developmentally disabled D.C. residents until its court-ordered closure in 1991. About 600 former Forest Haven residents are still living, and their care is the focus of the Evans lawsuit.

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