Regional News in Review - August 2009

Rare hearing is planned

One of the men accused of beating Justin Hamilton of Lakeville last year will have an unusual trial this month. Hamilton is developmentally disabled.  In late July Jonathon M. Diepold of Northfield agreed to a trial by stipulated facts, in connection with the beating of Hamilton on two nights last fall. Diepold is charged with 10 felonies in connection with the crime, which involved four other people.

A trial by stipulated facts is unusual in Minnesota. Attorneys will submit written arguments and District County Judge Timothy Wermager will review them and then issue a verdict. The case does not go to a jury. The verdict is expected on Sept. 11.

The beating of Hamilton sent shock waves through the region. Hamilton, then 24, was hit with sticks, kicked and punched repeatedly. He was lured into the attack by a young woman who falsely claimed Hamilton had hit her. Diepold and another man, John M. Maniglia, allegedly led the vicious attack. Maniglia was sentenced to eight years in prison this spring.

Another defendant in the attack, 22-year-old Timothy J. Kettering of Prior Lake, was sentenced July 20 to four days in jail and 80 hours of community service. He pleaded guilty to theft for stealing from Hamilton. Other charges were dropped. One more assailant is to stand trial in September. The young woman involved was sentenced as a juvenile last year. [Source: Star Tribune]

 

Parents fight to keep school open

The parents of eight deaf or hearing-impaired children are suing to keep open the state’s only school for the deaf. Parents contend that closing the South Dakota School for the Deaf would be illegal. The school is slated to close after the 2009-2010 academic year, due to declining enrollment.

The School for the Deaf, which opened in 1880, had an on-campus enrollment topping 130 in the 1970s, but last school year served 30 on site. Another 400 or so students receive services while attending local school districts.

The federal class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of the students, deaf or hearing-impaired South Dakota residents age 21 and younger, from South Dakota and Minnesota, argues that closing the South Dakota School for the Deaf would violate a clause in the South Dakota state constitution that mandates a public school for the deaf be available and runs contrary to an obligation tied to federal education funding for a free education for students with disabilities.

Gov. Mike Rounds earlier this year tried to close the campus and shift funding to outreach programs that educate deaf and hearing-impaired students in school districts around the state. That would have saved an estimated $1.2 million a year.

Federal stimulus money allowed the South Dakota Legislature to restore funding to operate the campus for the next year while officials come up with a plan on how to improve services to the students and determine what to do with the campus.

One key issue for families of students at the school is whether a plan to decentralize school operations would work. About a dozen students in the auditory-oral program will move from the campus to the nearby Brandon Valley School District this fall, which is intended to give them a better learning environment. Those students are deaf or hard of hearing and use hearing aids or cochlear implants. Parents involved in the lawsuit say the state lacks enough interpreters to make decentralization work.

A regents spokeswoman said enrollment numbers won’t be final until the school year starts. If it stayed even with last year, 18 or fewer students would be taught on campus this fall. [Source: Associated Press]

 

Bracelets available in Ramsey County

A year ago, Keith Kennedy, an autistic man from Shoreview, walked away from a Wisconsin summer camp, beginning “a week of utter hell,” his mother recalled. The 25-year-old eventually was found alive. Today, Kennedy is fully recovered, and in mid-July, he was among the first in line in Ramsey County to get a radiowave-emitting bracelet that will aid authorities in finding at-risk people who wander.

County officials announced July 22 that Ramsey County is the latest Minnesota community to join Project Lifesaver, a program that provides the technology to help track vulnerable people. The Kennedy family appeared at the press conference with law enforcement officials. Caregivers can get bracelets for people with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome and other cognitive impairments.

The technology has been used for 1,960 searches during the past 10 years, with no lives lost, according to information from Project Lifesaver. The average search takes 30 minutes, authorities say. The program has an initial cost of $99, and a $30 per-month battery replacement cost. To apply in Ramsey County, call 651-266-7332 for information, or go online to www.lojacksafetynet.com [Source: Star Tribune, Pioneer Press]

 

I Pods could help

People with Asperger’s syndrome struggle with the social skills that come so naturally to others. But staff at Fraser Child & Family Center in Minneapolis found a new way to reach people with Asperger’s – right through their headphones. They’re using iPods, which play music and videos, to teach them how to fit in.

It may have started out as a form of entertainment, but technology is turning into an unexpected boom for children and teenagers with special needs. The devices, it turns out, can be crammed with the kind of information they need to get through the day. While it’s still experimental, said Fraser psychology Sue Pederson, “I think it’s going to spread like wildfire.”

With Asperger’s, a form of autism, people lack the inner voice that tells them what is, or is not, appropriate behavior. At Fraser, Pederson’s staff came up with the idea of programming iPods to act as an electronic substitute for that missing voice. In this case, the staff helped students create a series of short videos and slide shows on how to behave in different social settings. Some are barely 30 seconds long: How to carry on a conversation (“Let the other person talk AND change the topic…”); how to respect other people’s boundaries, and thinkbefore they speak (“Use your filter!”)

In the world of special education, these scripts are known as “social stories,” used to teach basic social skills. “It’s a mental checklist for things to think about when you’re interacting with other people,” explained Mandy Henderson, who works with the Fraser Asperger’s program. As part of the Fraser project, the students can transfer the videos onto their iPods, and replay them over and over, to drive the lessons home. Jim Ball, an adviser to the Autism Society of America, said similar projects are popping up around the country. Some people are designing adaptations for smart phones, Palm Pilots and other devices to fill the same need, he said.

For information about the Fraser program, call (612) 331-9413 or go to www.fraser.org. [Source: Star Tribune]

 

County agrees to improve access for the Deaf

The Benton County Sheriff’s Department has agreed to improve the way it communicates with deaf and hard of hearing people. The agreement is the result of a settlement of claims brought by Mary Cervantes, a deaf woman who contacted the police several times in 2007.

In 2007, Cervantes was the victim of an assault. Officers arrived at the scene but could not communicate effectively with her. Her primary language is American Sign Language. Cervantes’ husband, who is not deaf, was asked to interpret for the officers on several occasions. However, he is not a qualified interpreter.

Cervantes is pleased with the outcome of her claims. “I am happy that the Benton County Sheriff’s Department agreed to improve the way they communicate with deaf people,” she said, “I hope what happened to me never happens to another deaf person again.”

The settlement agreement between Cervantes, the Benton County Sheriff’s Department, and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights will create a system for ensuring that the sheriff’s department will provide qualified American Sign Language interpreters when needed to communicate effectively with deaf and hard of hearing members of the public. The system involves identifying a pool of qualified interpreters who are willing to work on weekends and after regular business hours. When an interpreter is necessary, the sheriff’s department will immediately contact the certified interpreters on its list. The list will be updated annually.

In addition, to increase the availability of qualified interpreters, the sheriff’s department will offer a free training to local interpreters concerning sheriff’s department procedures. This training is free and open to the public.

Cervantes is represented by the Minnesota Disability Law Center, a statewide project of the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis offering free legal assistance to people with disabilities throughout Minnesota. [Source: Minnesota Disability Law Center]

Service Dogs for Veterans Act introduced

In July Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-G.A.) introduced the Service Dogs for Veterans Act, which will set up a pilot program within the Department of Veterans Affairs to pair service dogs with veterans who have physical or mental wounds, including PTSD. This bipartisan legislation marks Sen. Franken’s first piece of legislation since taking office. Additional co-sponsors are Sen. Lindsay Graham (RS.C.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-L.A.), Sen. Mark Begich (DA.K.), and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-O.H.).

“As someone who’s spent time with our troops on USO tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, and met wounded warriors at Walter Reed and Bethesda [hospitals’], I feel a real obligation to the men and women who have risked life and limb on our behalf,” said Franken. “There’s a huge return on investment here. Service dogs can do amazing things, and there is evidence to suggest that increasing their numbers would reduce the alarming suicide rate among veterans, decrease the number of hospitalizations, and lower the cost of medications and human care.”

“I have seen firsthand the therapeutic effects of service dogs assisting individuals,” said Isakson. “The potential they bring for the therapy and treatment of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries should be studied.”

The Franken-Isakson Service Dogs for Veterans Act will pair a minimum of 200 veterans and dogs, or the minimum number necessary to produce scientifically valid results on the benefits of the use of the dogs (whichever is greater). It will ensure that 50 percent of veterans participating in the pilot program will be those who suffer primarily from mental health disabilities, and fifty percent those who suffer primarily from physical injuries or disabilities. It will also direct the VA to partner exclusively with non-profit agencies who do not charge for their animals, services, or lodging.

The scientific study of the pilot program will study both the therapeutic benefits to veterans, including quality of life benefits reported by the veterans; and the economic benefits of using service dogs, including savings on health care costs, such as reduced hospitalization and prescription drug use, and productivity and employment gains for the veterans.

The benefits of interaction with therapy and service dogs are welldocumented. Dogs are already used at the VA Medical Center at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. A July 26 Pioneer Press article described how dogs from the Wisconsin-based Home for Life Animal Sanctuary visit injured veterans through their Sit*Stay*Heal Program. Veterans in the polytrauma program enjoy monthly visits from the dogs. [Source: Sen. Al Franken’s office, Pioneer Press]

 

Gag order reversed, names public

Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab ruled July 14 to reverse a June gag order he issued that would have restricted the press’s use of victim’s names in the alleged abuse case at Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea. The judge’s decision means that individual news organizations must now decide whether to use alleged victims’ names outside of the courtroom once they are brought up in active court.

The order also denied a motion that would have restricted access to the names in the public court files.

“The court has to recognize that once the names of the alleged victims are used in court it becomes part of the public record and the court has no authority to restrict the use and dissemination of those names by those present or by the media,” Schwab’s order states. “The only thing the court can do is to ask the media and public to also be sensitive to the feelings and sensibilities of the alleged victims and their families.”

Assistant Freeborn County Attorney Erin O’Brien – who made the original motion for the protective order during defendant Brianna Broitzman’s contested omnibus hearing on June 29 – said in court that Schwab’s June ruling seemed to be more than she had intended. She said she hoped news entities and other parties watching the proceedings would be respectful of the involved victims and their personal information. The Minnesota Newspaper Association said that restricting the victim’s names would be a case of prior restraint of the media.

Broitzman and co-defendant Ashton Larson face at least 10 counts each related to alleged abuse at Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea, after a Minnesota Department of Health report into the matter was released last August. They and four other young women were involved in verbal, sexual and emotional abuse of 15 residents at the nursing home in Albert Lea. The residents suffered from mental degradation conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. [Source: Albert Lea Tribune]

 

Cornerstone removed, contents revealed

The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs removed the cornerstone from historic building 9 at the Minneapolis Veterans Home July 7. This ceremony also kicked off demolition of the existing structure and subsequent construction of a new 100 bed skilled nursing care facility on the site. Residents were moved from the current building 9 in November 2007 after structural problems were discovered.

Construction of the new facility is scheduled to be complete by fall of 2011. This project is funded in part, 65 percent, by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which awarded the state of Minnesota $17.5 million for demolition and construction of a replacement facility. Legislation was passed and signed by Governor Pawlenty approving a 35 percent state match of federal dollars. The state match is $10.1 million of the total project.

In an effort to preserve some of the historical elements from building 9, a number of original features and decor will be incorporated and displayed in the new building, including the cornerstone of building 9, dated at the start of construction on November 11, 1934.

A number of items were in the cornerstone. A military medal, pictures, a VFW magazine, a map and newspaper clippings were discovered, as were several historical books, including the “History of Hiawatha,” “Minnesota in the Civil War” and “Minnesota in the Indian War.” For a complete list of the time capsule content and pictures visit www.mdva.state.mn.us/VeteransHomes/Minneapolis/

The Twin Cities facility is not the Department of Veterans Affairs’ only new facility going up in the state. On July 29, groundbreaking was held at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Fergus Falls, for a 33,000 square foot addition. Expansion plans include a 21 bed special care unit, a Veterans Affairs Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) and an expanded dining facility. The $9.5 million expansion project is slated for completion in January of 2011. [Source: Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs]

 

ADAPT protests at Democratic National Committee

In late July members of ADAPT held a vigil at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in Washington, DC. The group was seeking a meeting with party leadership, Congressional leaders and White House staff on health care reform.

ADAPT also wants an apology for the Democrats’ rile in establishing the institutional bias in longterm care and calling for the end of institutional bias in 2009. ADAPT used the 19th anniversary of the ADA by calling on President Barak Obama and elected officials to commit to end the institutional bias in principle and in public policy, and to push for approval of the Community Choice Act.

On July 24, Obama signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) at the White House. “We are pleased that the President has decided to do this, said Bob Kafka, an ADAPT organizer from Texas, “but ending the institutional bias in U.S. public policies would be a true test of the Obama Administration’s commitment to people with disabilities and to the principles in the UN Convention.”

At the Washington D.C. protest, the group was forced to cope with several electrical storms and torrential downpours that flooded the street with 6 inches of water. During the protest, DNC staff called the police on protestors when a woman with a developmental disability used a megaphone outside the building to pursue a response to ADAPT’s request for a meeting.

The DNC staff again called police when a “Gremlins” toy, belonging to the same woman, was placed on the stairs leading to the front door of the DNC headquarters. Finally, DNC staff contacted the federal Department of Transportation to have them remove the accessible port-a-john that ADAPT had delivered on Wednesday to a location nearby. “It seems they would prefer us to be ‘out of sight and out of mind’ like our brothers and sisters in nursing facilities and other institutions,” said Denise McMullin Powell of Delaware.

“We are very disappointed to see the DNC and Democratic leadership uniformly reject our demands,” said Tom Earle of Philadelphia. “However, we have been pleasantly surprised by the number of rank and file Democratic Members of Congress who have stopped to talk with us or even sought us out. We have definitely seen increasing support among these members for ending the institutional bias of Medicaid and for passing the Community Choice Act. [Source: ADAPT]