Justice Department sues Arkansas for lack of Olmstead enforcement

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The Justice Department has filed two lawsuits against the state of Arkansas for its treatment and segregation of people with disabilities in institutions.

In January 2009, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the Conway Human Development Center, which holds more than 500 people with disabilities. In March 2010, the Justice Department began investigating the state’s other five development centers, eventually filing a lawsuit in May against the entire system.

This is the second time during the Obama Administration that the Justice Department has directly filed suit against a state for failure to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision, which prohibits unnecessary institutionalization for people with disabilities. In October, the Justice Department reached a settlement with Georgia requiring the transfer of 9,000 people with disabilities from institutional to community settings.

Arkansas’ six development centers contain more than 1,100 residents, “most, if not all” of which would benefit from living in a community setting, according to the May complaint. The residents are often secluded in these institutions for years, if not decades, while waiting for a slot on the state’s Home and Community-based Waiver program to receive community-based services. The program’s backlog has more than 1,400 residents.

To comply with the Olmstead decision, institutions are required to constantly assess their patients, and inform and educate the patient’s guardians about options for transferring them out of institutional settings. Arkansas has allegedly failed at these obligations and, in fact, expanded its institutions at the expense of new services to integrate people with disabilities back into society.

“(Arkansas) gives individuals the draconian choice of receiving services in the segregated institutions or receiving no services at all,” according to the lawsuit.

The Conway case went to trial in fall for five weeks in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, concluding October 16.