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Residents sue Pennsylvania over closing of state centers for developmentally disabled

Philadelphia Inquirer - 1/31/2020

Jan. 31--Family members and 13 residents of Polk Center and White Haven Center filed a federal lawsuit to block the Wolf administration from closing the two facilities for adults with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities, alleging that the plan violates the residents' right under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced the closures, expected to take three years, in August. The centers, in Luzerne and Venango Counties, are among four remaining state centers. They have about 700 residents, down from more than 2,000 a decade ago, reflecting the nation's long-term trend toward community-based care.

The plaintiffs in the Polk and White Haven lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, "seek the enforcement of their federal rights to prevent their severe injury, including extreme mental distress, gross physical harm, and even possibly death."

The 36-page proposed class-action lawsuit says community-based providers failed some of the plaintiffs.

The Human Services Department said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Russel "Joey" Jennings, a 27-year-old with autism, intellectual disability, and psychiatric disorders, was in six different group homes that failed to manage his behavior. "As a result of his 'community' experience, Joey was toxically overmedicated as a chemical restraint and suffered permanent Parkinsonian like tremors, the disfigurement of female-like breasts, psychotic breaks with reality, serotonin syndrome, and intractable insomnia," according to the lawsuit.

Jennings is an unusually young resident of White Haven and Polk. Most or the residents have lived in the facilities more than 20 years, and many have been there for more than 40 years, the lawsuit says.

That's because younger families typically reject institutional settings for their children and why there are 12,700 people on the waiting list for community services, said Maureen A. Devaney, a founder and executive director of Vision for Equality, a Philadelphia nonprofit advocacy group for people with disabilities and their families.

"They want community services. They are not asking for the state centers."

Devaney and state officials are also concerned that the cost of caring for residents in state centers -- already expected to be $419,000 per resident this year -- will keep rising as the population declines, squeezing the money available for community services.

Polk has 190 residents, White Haven has 110. State data showed that, in July, two other centers, Ebensburg and Selinsgrove, had a total of 404 residents.

Kristin Ahrens, deputy secretary for the Office of Developmental Programs, estimated in December that it will cost $180,000 to $270,000 a year to provide community-based services to the Polk and White Haven residents, who have extraordinary needs.

Separately this month, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed legislation that would block the closures -- until all the intellectually disabled individuals on the state's Medicaid waiting list receive services that help them live in the community.

The bill would effectively prevent the state from ever closing the remaining four institutions.

Gov. Tom Wolf plans to veto the bill when it is sent to his desk, spokesman J.J. Abbott said Thursday.

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