Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Two centers Scrutinized

The United States Department of Justice is an earnest protector of the disabled and downtrodden when its appointed minions can be diverted to political pursuits like harassing officeholders of the other party, but even on good causes it can overreach.

That is what happened when Justice lawyers asked the federal district court last week to halt the admission of severely disabled children to the state Human Development Center at Conway.

For a dozen years since the U. S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision on institutional care for the profoundly disabled, the Justice Department has been pushing states to move people out of big institutions such as Arkansas’ human development centers and into some kind of community setting where they can be part of neighborhood life. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 says states should strive for the least segregated and restrictive environment for their wards, and the Justice Department’s lawyers have been unstinting in making the states do that.

So the Justice Department sued the state and the Conway Human Development Center more than a year ago to further that goal, but it also alleged that the state provided some careless and sometimes inhumane treatment, including harsh restraints that are not necessary. Ninety percent of the residents of the Conway center now are adults, most having been admitted in childhood and spent their lives there.

The Justice lawyers offer some disconcerting statistics and anecdotes that suggest that the Conway facility does not care for its wards as assiduously as most other states do. The people who run the place say the attention is excellent, and families with loved ones there seem to verify it almost in unison. The court must find the truth or some proximate version of it.

But the immediate remedy that Justice seeks — halting admissions to the center — is a needless and even harmful one. The families of some 1,300 severely disabled people are waiting, often desperately, to get a loved one into the care of the program.

Nearly all the residents are so critically disabled that they cannot function alone and need round-the-clock assistance. The court should not resort to such a remedy — and we don’t think it will — unless the place is a snakepit where the health and well being of people are in peril.

That may be exactly the situation at another human development center at Alexander, on Little Rock’s southern periphery. The state’s own Office of Long Term Care unleashed a blistering report on conditions at the center, where the facilities were degraded and dirty and the staff often heedless of the dangers to people who were in its custody. Custody seems to be a better word than care.

Gov. Beebe said Monday that he was “lowering the boom” on Alexander. We don’t know what that means, but we hope that a minimum it means heads will roll and existence made bearable for those unfortunate enough to be entrusted to their care.