A FEDERAL JUDGE is expected next month to officially vacate the landmark lawsuit brought against the D.C. government for its care of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. That the District has apparently been able to satisfy the court’s requirements for improved care is welcome news. But it must be tempered by the fact that the city took an agonizing 40 years to finally get things right. Even more sobering is the knowledge that of the more than 3,000 members of the original plaintiffs, only 479 are known to still be alive.
U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle issued an opinion Dec. 13 indicating the District has achieved compliance with the court-ordered benchmarks established as part of the class-action lawsuit brought in 1976 by six residents of Forest Haven, the District’s former institution in Laurel for developmentally disabled people. Citing the “long, and sometimes torturous, history of this litigation,” Judge Huvelle said the time has come to end court supervision of the city’s care and she set a final hearing in the case for Jan 10.
The Evans lawsuit, named for lead plaintiff Joy Evans who was 8 when she was committed to Forest Haven and 17 when she died there in 1976, forced the closure of the notorious institution. So inadequate was the care and so poor the conditions that the court ruled it violated constitutional rights. Unfortunately, though, the city failed miserably in its efforts to place residents in the least restrictive setting with individualized care. A powerful Post investigation in 1999, “Invisible Lives,” detailed the dreadful conditions and lack of attention to vulnerable people placed in the city’s care. But despite promises from city officials, there was little improvement. “Systemic, continuous, and serious noncompliance” was the characterization of Judge Huvelle in a 2007 ruling that was followed by a series of reports chronicling the city’s failure to make significant progress in improving the lives of the surviving members of the class action.
A key development appears to have occurred in 2010, when the city agreed to the appointment of an independent administrator to help bring the city in compliance with court orders. Credit also goes to capable leadership in the Department on Disability Services, which set goals focused on providing residents with comprehensive residential and health services and opportunities to lead self-directed lives.
There is still, as the judge makes clear in her ruling, work to be done in some areas. There’s also the understandable worry from advocates for disabled people that once court monitoring stops, the city could drift back into bad habits. Some safeguards have been put in place over the decades, but city officials need to determine if more are needed. Equally important is the need for advocates — including University Legal Services, which has been so admirably dogged in its representation of Evans plaintiffs — to continue to be watchdogs.
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