by Jane McClure
A federal class action lawsuit involving Minnesotans with disabilities who live or have lived in corporate adult foster care or group homes returns to U.S. District Court in St. Paul on Friday, May 12.
Before the 1 p.m. court proceedings, disability rights activists will gather at 11:30 a.m. to protest what they see as an inadequate proposed settlement. The “Integration Now” rally is meant to draw attention to the settlement, and the need for more to be done to help Minnesotans with disabilities as they seek to integrate into their home communities.
Learn more about the rally at the Facebook group, Minnesotans for Direct Support Improvements or at okerlundlaw.com. The law firm is representing those who object to the settlement. There is also an online petition demanding that the proceedings be virtual so that more can watch.
The May 12 proceeding is a fairness hearing. A fairness hearing is one where the court weighs a decision as to whether or not a settlement agreement is fair, reasonable and adequate. The final decision can be made at or after the hearing.
The hearing on Murphy versus Harpstead was to be held in January but was postponed to allow the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) more time to mail notices to some Minnesotans with disabilities who were entitled to receive notice of the settlement agreement.
Objections to the settlement were filed in March.
The civil court case has gone on for more than six years. Tenner Murphy is the Murphy in the case and is one of the lead plaintiffs. Other named plaintiffs are Marrie Bottelson and Dionne Swanson.
Harpstead is DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. DHS itself is a defendant, and several counties’ human services departments and ARRM are involved as interested or amicus parties.
The Minnesota Disability Law Center is representing the plaintiffs.
A key factor in the case is the federal Olmstead decision. Olmstead versus L.C. is considered one of the most important disability-related civil rights court rulings in U.S. history. The 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision was based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In that case, the high court ruled that people with disabilities have qualified rights to receive state funded supports and services in the community, instead of living in institutions. That is tied to a three-part test. One is that a disabled person’s treatment professionals determine that community supports are appropriate. The second is that the person does not object to living in the community. The third part in the test is that providing services in the community would be a reasonable accommodation, when that is balanced with other similarly situated people with disabilities. The intent is for disabled people to live in the least restricted setting possible.
Plaintiffs in Murphy versus Harpstead contend that corporate adult foster care and group homes cause isolation and segregation. They want access to various individualized housing services available under disability waivers, for more integrated housing options. They want to be in their home communities.
In the 1970s when Minnesota began closing its large state institutions for people with disabilities, group homes were seen as a viable alternative. But more recently, that has changed. Part of the change may be tied to the staffing shortage felt statewide.
The class action lawsuit states that DHS maintains a “discriminatory residential service system.” When the lawsuit was filed in 2016 there were about 3,500 group homes around the state. One complaint is that people in group homes lack control over their lives and feel helpless. Another is that people with disabilities are sometimes placed in group homes far away from their families, friends and networks of support.
Olmstead has long been a sore point for many disabled Minnesotans as the state was one of the last in the country to file its required draft Olmstead plan. Minnesota didn’t file its draft plan with the federal court until November 2013, years after other states filed their plans. The plan won provisional court approval in 2014. But goals still have not been meet, despite ongoing work.
Minnesota’s Olmstead plan indicates that by June 2019 the state did plan to move 5,547 people into more integrated housing. There were also assurance that community alternatives would be greatly expanded for Minnesotans with disabilities. One argument in the case is that Minnesota still doesn’t have a detailed plan for how it can provide options and reduce reliance on group homes.
The court case has generated many documents. Buried in the issue are the stories of the people affected. One example is plaintiff Tenner Murphy, who is from a well-known St. Paul area family. Murphy is in his 30s, and has had a lifelong battle with cancer that has caused his cognitive and physical disabilities. He had previously enjoyed outdoor activities including archery and walking, according to court documents.
But when Murphy moved to a group home, he was forced to use a wheelchair because the facility lacked staff to assist him on walks.
Murphy’s case was filed with help from his parents, Kay and Richard Murphy. His father has died since the case was filed.
Learn more about the rally at https://www.facebook.com/groups/149428685664920