Justice Department Sues Florida Over Disabled Kids in Nursing Homes
The civil rights division says Florida's tea party budget cuts are harming vulnerable children.
The Justice Department Monday sued the state of Florida over its longstanding practice of housing medically fragile and disabled children in geriatric nursing homes, alleging that the state is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint has been a long time in coming. DOJ started investigating Florida's treatment of medically fragile and disabled kids in late 2011. It's been warning the state ever since that if it didn't change its practices and find a way for these kids to be cared for at home with their families or in better settings in the community, it would file suit and force the state to act.
Tea party-dominated Florida has been extremely reluctant to spend any money to provide care for this vulnerable population of children. The state even went so far as to turn down $37.5 million in federal money that would help move children out of nursing homes, all because the money was seen as part of Obamacare. Not even the threat of a civil rights lawsuit, apparently, was enough to get the state to do more.
Monday's complaint was signed by Thomas Perez, the head of DOJ's civil rights division who is now taking over as US secretary of labor. During his time at the civil rights division, Perez has been quietly but firmly pushing states to deinstitutionalize the mentally disabled and medically fragile. Under his leadership, the Obama administration has been the first presidential administration to systematically use the Supreme Court's 1999 decision in Olmstead v. LC to advocate for this vulnerable population. That decision bans states from segregating disabled people in institutions or other settings.
Olmstead was a landmark decision, but it wasn't until Obama took office that DOJ really started using it aggressively. Since 2009, DOJ has filed suit against 11 states over the discrimination against the physically and mentally disabled, and prosecutors have either investigated or intervened in ongoing private litigation in some way in many others. As a result, for instance, the state of Virginia was forced to close down several "training centers" in which it had institutionalized thousands of people with mental disabilities. Those people are now being moved into community settings or back home with their families. Similar moves are underway in Georgia, Mississippi, and elsewhere thanks to intervention by DOJ. Florida is now the latest—and probably the last such case—to be brought by Perez.
The kids at the heart of the Florida suit are children who, for instance, suffered traumatic brain injuries and are reliant on ventilators, feeding tubes, and 24-hour nursing care because they could die in five minutes if a breathing tube came loose. Many of them also have cognitive deficiencies or are paralyzed in some way. In short, their families need a lot of help taking care of them. Rather than provide that support, Florida's response has been to push many kids into geriatric nursing homes, which are sometimes cheaper than home care but which also don't provide children nearly the sorts of developmental opportunities they get with their families or even in foster care.
The Justice Department complaint lays out just how stingy Florida has been in the past decade when it comes to taking care of these kids. According to the complaint, even after Florida supposedly took steps this year to move more out of institutions, nearly 200 children with disabilities are still living in them, where they have only limited interaction with non-disabled people and are often far from their families and friends.