Oversight is debated at hearing

Should federal court oversight of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) actions and policies affecting Minnesotans with disabilitie send? Or is there a need for continued monitoring, to ensure compliance with a 2011 court settlement and with the state’s Olmstead Plan?

A ruling is expected soon, following an April 16 status conference in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, before Judge Donovan Frank and Magistrate Judge Becky Thorson. A full courtroom heard updates on the latest revisions to the Olmstead Plan. That included updates submitted since the last status conference in July 2018, a presentation on quality of life survey results and the initial follow-up quality of life study results. The court had asked for information including public response to the results, continued areas of concern, and next steps in the process.

The court also reviewed the latest actions in relation to the Jensen settlement and its related plan of action. It dates from a class action lawsuit that began in 2009 and was settled in late 2011. The lawsuit was prompted by excessive use of restraint of residents of the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) in Cambridge. Parents of three METO residents sought changes in the facility practices and monetary damages for their children and for other METO residents who had been restrained or secluded there.

The Jensen case covered about 300 people who had been secluded or restrained while at METO from July 1, 1997 through May 11, 2011. METO residents were restrained and secluded, and punished for infractions that included touching a pizza box.

The case against METO was the catalyst in getting the Olmstead plan work underway in Minnesota. The biannual conferences on Olmstead and the Jensen settlement provide the court with required updates on both matters. The Olmstead office and DHS are able to present their progress, and the plaintiffs are able to bring up areas that haven’t been addressed. While use of seclusion and restraint is always a key issue at the conference, the court sought information on several other issues. One focus has been data used to make policy decisions. Another is what actions are proposed to improve performance before December 2019.

Some specific requests of the court include information on wait times for specific types of housing, wait times for movement to community placements after placement criteria have been met, the needs assessment regarding the number of treatment homes, use of person-centered planning and electronic data management used to track information in abuse and neglect investigations.

DHS argued that the time for the court to end its oversight has long since passed. The state submitted 1,200 pages of documentation to prove that DHS is in compliance. Citing the time and money allocated to fulfilling the court’s reporting requirements, Assistant Attorney General Scott Ikeda said, “Allow DHS to get on with the work it does … it’s time for this to come to an end.”

But Shamus O’Meara, who represents the plaintiffs, criticized the state for trying to avoid responsibility and needed monitoring. Although reductions in mechanical retrain use have been made, people continue to be subjected to the restraints at what are seen as too-high levels.

“It may be eight years, but to the people who are being abused, it’s a lifetime,” O’Meara said.

The court also heard from others presenting testimony including Jennifer Ho, commissioner for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. She leads the Olmstead Subcabinet of state agency representatives who work on plan implementation and monitoring. A new cabinet stepped in earlier this year with the election of Gov. Tim Walz.

Ho praised the Olmstead structure and process that is in place, and outlined continued progress on the plan, and the goal of move people with disabilities from segregated settings and into the community. Progress is being seen in many areas of the plan, although not every goal has been met. One goal that has not been met is that on reducing use of mechanical restraints.

The arguments tied to reporting were discussed. Some who testified pushed for continuing thorough public reporting on goals and progress. Ho said she is too new to the Olmstead process to make the case that reporting requirement hold back progress. Frank suggested that options to reporting, such as roundtable discussions, could be considered.

The court hadn’t issued a ruling as of Access Press deadline