Class action lawsuit filed against NH’s mental illness services

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A coalition of major disability advocacy groups sued the state of New Hampshire on Thursday, alleging that it is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by unnecessarily institutionalizing people with mental disabilities.

The lawsuit follows a Department of Justice investigation, completed in April 2011, that found “systemic failures” in the state’s system and cast doubt on its 10-year plan, begun in 2008, to transfer individuals out of the state’s two major institutions and into more integrated settings.

The lawsuit takes aim at the Glencliff Home, a state operated nursing facility primarily for people with mental illnesses. Though the facility was designed to be a be a transition home before people transfer into more integrated settings, individuals are almost never discharged. Since 2005, 13 people have transitioned out the facility, 11 of which moved to the New Hampshire Hospital, the state-operated psychiatric center.

“In recent years, more people have died at Glencliff than have returned to the community,” according to the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire.

In the lawsuit, the Disabilities Rights Center, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the Center for Public Representation also criticize the state’s dramatic expansion of admissions to the NHH, from 900 annually in 1989 to 2,300 in 2010.

The advocacy groups blame the rise on misplaced funding priorities, highlighting the state’ recent budget cuts to mobile crises teams, supported employment services and other measures that are “uniquely effective in preventing the prolonged or repeated institutionalization of individuals with serious mental illness,” according to the lawsuit.

As a result, individuals are now often forced to spend nights in homeless shelters and emergency rooms, continuing a pattern of “staggeringly high readmissions rates” to the NHH.

For Amy Messer, legal director for the Disabilities Rights Center, the cycle is contrary to the wishes and the constitutional rights of people with mental disabilities.

“They share a common goal to be integrated into community life and not segregated from their peers,” Messer said at a press conference Thursday announcing the suit, according to an article in the New Hampshire Union-Leader.

The Disability Rights Center is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.