Washington must help more developmentally disabled live independently, lawsuit says

U.S. Supreme Court precedent has established that developmentally disabled adults have a right to avoid being unnecessarily institutionalized, the federal lawsuit says, but Washington has failed to set up a system where they can receive services that allow them to live as independently as possible.

JoHanna Pratt, a 32-year-old developmentally disabled woman, says she’d like to be able to take walks by herself, to visit friends and to participate in Special Olympics softball practices without having to get permission.

But Pratt lives at the state-run Rainier School, in the Pierce County city of Buckley, where, she says, the staff keeps a pretty tight rein. She’s been unable to obtain support services that would allow her to live in her own home, despite having been approved for them.

“I don’t like people following me outside,” Pratt said in a phone interview this week. “Staff is always with me. It’s stressful.”

A disability-rights organization called Disability Rights Washington filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Pratt and other developmentally disabled adults this past week, alleging that the state’s failure to place them in the living arrangements they seek violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent has established that developmentally disabled adults have a right to avoid being unnecessarily institutionalized, the complaint says, but Washington has failed to set up a system where they can receive services that allow them to live as independently as possible.

“The individuals we’re talking about in this case, they’ve been assessed by the state to be able to live in the community, and they’ve said they want to live in the community,” said Sarah Eaton, a lawyer with Disability Rights Washington. “The difference living in the community is being able to go to the doctor, you can choose your provider. You can walk around your neighborhood and say hi to your neighbor. You can have a job. You can go swimming at the Y.”

The state’s Department of Social and Health Services disagreed with the group’s allegations in a response posted on its website, saying it is committed to empowering adults with such disabilities to “live the lives they want.” The agency’s Developmental Disabilities Administration has 44,000 clients, and only 726 live in the state’s four “residential habilitation centers” — Rainier School, Fircrest School in Shoreline, Lakeland Village in Medical Lake and Yakima School, the statement said.

“Throughout DSHS there are plans, supported by budget allocations, which support clients in community settings,” the department wrote. “Looking at where and how individuals with intellectual disabilities live in Washington, it is easy to see the DSHS, and state policy, commitment in action.”

The number of people living in the four institutions is the lowest it’s ever been, down from more than 4,000 people in the 1970s. The number has fallen by about one-quarter in the past decade, the state said.

In an email, Eaton acknowledged that the state has been “incrementally reducing” the number of people in the institutions over the past four and a half decades, but “Washington is still far behind other states that have decided to invest in community-based services to more drastically reduce or eliminate the need for institutions.”

DSHS itself has identified at least 91 developmentally disabled adults being institutionalized against their will because the state could not find them appropriate community-based services, or who were at risk of being institutionalized against their will, the lawsuit said.

The key issue is that the Legislature hasn’t provided enough money for the 140 supported-living agencies across the state, said Scott Livengood, legislative chairman of the Community Residential Services Association. The organizations, which serve close to 4,500 people, are dependent on the state for funding. A decade ago, he said, the agencies received enough money to pay 24 percent above minimum wage; now, the funding level is just 14 percent above it. And the drop is even more pronounced in King County, where Seattle’s $15 minimum-wage law is in effect.

The low pay has significantly worsened turnover and made it tough to hire more staff, Livengood said.

“You can’t look at serving new people when you can’t staff the houses you already have,” he said. “We look at this as a legislative issue. DSHS does what it can with the funding it’s provided.”

GENE JOHNSON

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