Settlement proposed in 70s-era D.C. case

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The District of Columbia is set to end 37 years of court oversight of its system for providing services for people with mental disabilities, signaling a new stage in the District’s long-running saga of institutionalization.

Washington DC on a map in the center of a magnifying glass that shows a number of saurrounding cities

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On September 12, Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia gave preliminary approval to the settlement of a class action lawsuit filed in 1974 by patients at the District’s St. Elizabeths Hospital looking to live more independent lives in their communities.

“It was a crumbling, wretched institution,” said former DC attorney general Peter J. Nickles, who was among the lawyers who filed the original case, in an article in the Washington Post. “In no sense of the word did the city treat the folks who were captured in the mental health system in a tolerable, civilized fashion.”

At the time, the hospital had 3,600 residents. Now it has about 280.

In 1980, the District began creating a network of community-treatment options for people living outside the hospital. But in 1997, a federal judge, one of three who worked on the case during its long history, placed the city’s mental health department under receivership. The District regained control in 2000, when it agreed to meet a variety of conditions, most of which were met in the most recent report by the court-approved monitor.

Under the terms of the agreement, the District has agreed to build or subsidize an additional 300 housing units, provide job counseling on demand and reduce the number of youths sent to certain private treatment facilities. Mayor Vincent Gray agreed to add $3.5 million to support the improvements.

A hearing will be held in February to hear to objections to the final settlement.