By: Allan M. Siegel
On Tuesday, January 10, 2017, Judge Huvelle brought 40 years of federal
court supervision of DC’s care of people with developmental disabilities
to an end. This end comes after a long string of horrors of mistreatment,
molestation, neglect, and nonexistent or substandard medical care, and death.
This all began with a law suit against Forest Haven in the 1970s. Forest
Haven was a notorious asylum for developmentally disabled people located
in Laurel. The lawsuit was originally brought by lead Plaintiff Joy Evans,
who was committed at age 8 and died in the system of Forest Haven at age 17.
In 1978, federal Judge Pratt ruled that DC was violating the constitutional
rights of the developmentally disabled people in its care at Forest Haven,
and ordered the city to ensure that the residents were moved into the
“least separate, most integrated and least restrictive settings”
and to be “free from harm.”
In the 1990s, the class action eventually led to the closing of Forest
Haven and dispersing its 1,100 residents into small, privately operated
group homes throughout the city. The reform failed miserably, and the
cases of abuse, neglect, molestation, and stealing continued to pile up.
In 1999, the Washington Post reported 350 incidents of neglect and mistreatment,
but not a single fine for the facility operators, all within a system
paying $100,000 per year per each of the 1,100 participants. Corruption
was rampant. In 2006, a court monitor reported hundreds of incident reports
piled up alongside continued horrors and abuse. For example, they found
that death reports from one facility were being altered at least half
of the time.
There was a turnaround after University Legal Services, the Center for
Public Representation, as well as pro bono lawyers from Holland &
Knight, renewed litigation. Kathy Sawyer was appointed by Judge Huvelle
as compliance administrator. In December of 2016, Judge Huvelle noted
“steady and substantial” progress and that DC had “finally
achieved compliance.” While this overall may be welcome news about
a system that has been almost a complete failure for over 40 years, it
would bode DC well to continue to progress and take its responsibilities
towards its citizens with the utmost seriousness – as it truly can
be a matter of life and death.