The war of words between Florida health administrators and federal civil rights lawyers continued Friday as the administration of Gov. Rick Scott rebuffed the U.S. Justice Department’s offer to help remove hundreds of children from nursing homes.
In a letter to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Florida social service chiefs called “unfounded” the claim that the state needlessly warehouses disabled and medically fragile children in nursing homes meant to care for elders. Agency heads reached that conclusion after a two-week investigation in which they interviewed the parents or caregivers of many disabled children “to ensure that they were aware of the services available for them in the community.”
“In your letter, you express concern about the welfare of Florida’s children,” said the letter, signed by the lawyers for three state agencies — the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Children & Families and the Department of Health. “The state assures you that the healthcare professionals at the Florida agencies charged with the daily responsibility of ensuring child welfare are equally concerned.”
“Indeed, these hardworking employees at [the three agencies] have dedicated their lives and careers to ensuring that this and other vulnerable populations receive necessary medical services” in community settings, the letter states.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department sent a scathing, 22-page letter to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi that said state health regulators were violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 law designed to protect frail and disabled people from being warehoused in large, isolated institutions. In all, more than 220 children — some of them infants and toddlers — are being housed in institutions along with frail elders. Many of the youngsters, the Justice Department said, get no education, and spend much of their time sitting in bed or in wheelchairs watching television. Some have lived almost their entire lives in nursing-home beds.
So many children are in nursing homes, the Justice Department said, because Florida has failed to set aside enough money to pay for in-home nursing care, therapy and other services that would allow parents to care for their children at home. Other states, the department contends, have done a better job of keeping children out of institutions.
Marge Evans, the head of Children’s Comprehensive Care, a rehab center in Broward, said she currently is caring for two small children who can — and should — be moved into their parents’ homes. One is a 9-year-old boy who lost his mother in a car wreck in which he nearly drowned. The boy’s father wants to care for him at home with his sister, who also suffered brain damage in a near-drowning during the crash. But the state has told the family that unless the little boy becomes “homeless,” he won’t qualify for nursing care at his family’s home and must remain at the rehab.
“He could be stuck there for life if they don’t get any money,” Evans said.
The second child is a 6-year-old girl who receives nutrition through a feeding tube. The tube fell out several times under the girl’s mother’s care, and Evans and others have recommended that the girl, who suffers from hydrocephaly, be released back to her mother with brief, daily visits from a nurse to maintain the tube. The state, Evans said, refused to pay for a single hour of nursing care — so the girl remains in a facility.