Public hearings on a City Council bill entitled The Mentally Retarded Citizens Constitutional Rights and Dignity Act of 1977 will be held Wednesday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the council chambers, room 500 of the District Building.
The bill, which was introduced in March by council member Arrington Dixon, is divided into four major sections that deal with commitment and treatment procedures, the establishment of an Administration on Mental Retardation, education for the mentally retarded and a zoning law revision that will allow group home facilities funded and operated by the District to be constructed without regard to residential zoning classifications and restrictions.
The bill is designed to "secure the constitutional rights of mentally retarded persons, to provide and define rights of procedural due process and treatment for such persons, and to assure the fullest normalization of life which is possible for them," according to the hearing notice sent out by the council.
The hearing will be conducted by the council's Committee on Human Resources and Aging. Dixon said that he was "very optimistic" that the bill would be passed, but committee chairman Polly Shackleton said that the 68-page bill is "a very comprehensive piece of legislation," and that it is "very unlikely that it will go through without changes." Many factors, including the cost of implementing the bill, will have to be explored, she said.
Facilities for the mentally retarded are administered and coordinated by the Mantal Health Division of the Department of Human Resources (DHR.). The establishment of the Administration on Mental Retardation (AMR) would take the administration of these programs out of the DHR and place it directly under the mayor, with the chief of the AMR appointed by the mayor.
DHR Director Albert Russo, who will testify at the hearing, said "the DHR is in favor with the spirit, intent and principals of bill . . . they are highly laudable." He said, however, that officials are concerned about the "methods of achieving the goals and objectives," in particular the "part of the bill which provides for a separate administration."
Russo said that plaching a separate administration directly under the mayor would be a burden and pose administrative problems.
"I think the intent of the bill is excellent; it's long overdue," said Robert Plotkin, an attorney with the Mental Health Law Project who specializes in the rights of the mentaily retarded. Plotkin will be among witnesses testifying next week.
"The bill recognizes that the mentally retarded are no different than other citizens," Plotkin said, but he added that he "can't support the bill in it's present form because it suffers from some drafting problems."
One instance of this, he said, is section 502 of the bill which places limits on the amount of funds the District government will pay for the placement of the mentally retarded in private educational facilities.
According to Plotkin, this is not in compliance with Public Law 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act - 1975), which says that the government must cover all costs in private placements that are made necessary due to the lack of appropriate public facilities.
Passing this section of the bill would be grounds for losing all federal funding for special education, Plotkin said.
The bill would provide the mentally retarded with greater freedom, making it harder to commit people to institutions, and easier for them to get out of them. It also has provisions safeguarding the rights of institutionalized persons to have visitors, advocates and lawyers, and outlines voluntary commitment procedures to Forest Haven, the District institution. At present, voluntary commitment procedures to Forest Haven do not exist.
Among witnesses scheduled to testify are spokesmen for the American Civil Liberties Union and the District's Association for Retarded Citizens. Council member Dixon is scheduled to be the first witness.
Anyone wishing to testify should call Nancy Valencia at 724-8020 or 724-8032 by the close of business Friday. All witnesses are asked to provide written copies of their testimony.
Anyone wishing to submit written statements, but not to appear in person, should address their statements to Robert Williams, Secretary to the Council, room 509, District Building, Washington, D.C. 20004 by the close of business Jan. 27.
Copies of the bill can be obtained from the Council Legislative Services Unit, room 221 of the District Building. The telephone number is 725-8050.