The Arc of Florida was horrified to read in The Miami Herald that the U.S. Department of Justice accuses Florida of warehousing hundreds of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) in nursing homes for years. What is particularly troubling is the DOJ’s most recent allegation that Florida will not cooperate with its investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez says the Justice Department visited nursing homes in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg. During those visits, it discovered that some children have lived in these facilities for a decade or longer, including several who entered them as toddlers. He alleges the state failed to meet its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Isolating children with I/DD in nursing homes violates their civil rights. The U.S. Supreme Court was clear about this in its 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. ruling, which affirmed that individuals with developmental disabilities are protected by the ADA from being institutionalized. The Arc of Florida believes the healthiest environment for an individual with I/DD to live in is one’s community. Institutionalizing them in nursing homes places them at an increased risk for physical and emotional health problems. That’s why our organization has worked for nearly 60 years to keep them out of institutions.
The investigation by the DOJ suggests that Florida could actually save money by moving these children out of nursing homes. The state has made significant cuts to community-based programs in recent years that would allow people with I/DD to live outside institutions, while increasing the funding to warehouse these individuals in nursing homes. Perez cited one mother who felt she had no choice but to place two of her children in a nursing home because she couldn’t get funding for adequate community-based services.
Sadly, this is not a new issue. President Ronald Reagan spoke out against ill-conceived expenditures in 1981 when he learned of a regulation that required Katie Beckett, a girl with I/DD, to be institutionalized for $6,000 a month, when she could have been treated at home for $1,000 each month. When changes were made on the federal level, Beckett was able to move home and lived many years longer than doctors originally predicted.
While this administration didn’t cause these problems, it has an opportunity to correct them. As Florida’s legislators begin discussing priorities for the upcoming legislative session, we hope they will take a closer look at this issue and work to ensure that civil rights of Floridians with I/DD are not violated.
Michele Poole, board president, The Arc of Florida, Tallahassee