Welcome to the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights Interview series, a regular examination of the court cases that shape and affect our lives.
In 2003, a coalition of advocates in New York filed a legal challenge to the state’s practice of housing people with mental disabilities in adult homes. Known as Disability Advocates Inc. v. Paterson, this case saw a significant victory a year ago when a federal judge ruled that the state was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by not allowing these adult home residents to integrate into the community. Changes in state policy are ongoing.
To learn more about this case, we spoke with Roger Bearden, Director of the Disability Law Center at New York Lawyers For The Public Interest.
PERRY: What was the purpose of this lawsuit?
BEARDEN: The DAI case was brought against the state of New York to require the state of New York to offer people with mental illness who live in adult homes the opportunity to live in community settings. Adult homes in New York City are large, several hundred bed facilities where people have very little choice in their day-to-day lives, the choice of who they live with, when they eat, what they eat, what they do, when they take their medications, how they take their medications, no one’s allowed to self-administer their medications. So the purpose of the lawsuit was to cease its practice of serving individuals with mental illness in these highly restrictive institutions, adult homes, and to make available the opportunity for people to have true community-integrated settings in which to live and receive care.
PERRY: Why did you feel you needed to go to Court?
BEARDEN: The history of New York State’s use of adult homes as part of its mental health system goes back at least 35 years. The first official report condemning the practice was written in 1979, that came from then District-Attorney Charles Heinz, and there’s been a series of reports and critiques, advocacy in the legislative arena, to try to reform these practices, all with very little impact on affording new options for people with mental illness. Then in 2002, the New York Times ran a series of articles describing the real tragedy of these settings and the wasted lives of people with mental illness who were spending decades in these institutions. And that galvanized once again a political movement and also galvanized a set of advocates who came together on a piece of litigation. That political movement made some changes in some of the day-to-day conditions of the homes but didn’t lead to many new opportunities in the community for people or at least for the vast majority of people who are in adult homes. So the litigation was necessary because it was clear that there was no other way of effectuating that change.
PERRY: What’s happening with this case now?
BEARDEN: Well, right now there are two things that are going on. The judge entered his final remedial order in March of 2010, which required the state to begin the development of fifteen hundred supported housing slots in the first year and then another fifteen hundred for the next two years. And supported housing is a scattered site, apartment living for people with mental illness. So that’s going on, is…that order is being implemented. At the same time, the state has appealed to the Second Circuit court of appeals, seeking to overturn the district court judge’s order. The state also asked for the court of appeals to stay, or stop, the implementation of the remedy while this appeal was going forward. The court of appeals said no, they denied the stay, at the same time that we’re visibly preparing our appeals papers, they state has filed its appeal, we’re now preparing our response, we’re also going forward with the implementation of the remedy.
PERRY: What’s happening to the people in the adult homes in the meantime?
BEARDEN: Well, in the short term, there is some…no movement until the state is able to implement the remedy, so very shortly we’re going to see some very substantial movement. Part of the remedy is that the state will issue a set of requests for proposals to allow for the development of this supported scattered setup housing. Providers will be awarded contracts and those providers will be doing a lot of in-reach to gather momentum, find clients, help people figure out where they want to move and how to make that successful. At the same time the counsel’s team and our community partners are working with residents to educate them about the order, to make sure that when the opportunity is available, people are able to avail themselves of it.
PERRY: Why do you think this case is important?
BEARDEN: First and foremost it brings justice to people who’ve been deprived of justice for a very long time. These men and women in the adult homes are…have been consigned their age-in place die-in place and they’ve had no hope of achieving a more integrated and a more fruitful life. That it its importance and I think it also shows the ability of advocates and activists to come together and effectuate change using the courts. And it’s I think going to be a milestone in that effort and I know that there are many other advocates out there in other states who face similar situations. There’s a similar case that’s been filed in Connecticut recently attacking a very similar problem. I know that a lot of people are looking to this case as a real milestone in the rights of people with disabilities.
PERRY: Thank you so much for speaking with us today!
BEARDEN: Thank you.
That was Roger Bearden, Director of the Disability Law Center at New York Lawyers For The Public Interest.
The National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights is a collection of more than 100 civil rights organizations and numerous individuals who came together to ensure the courts protect and ensure justice, fairness and opportunity for everyone. The campaign focuses on public education and outreach, finding ways to get the message out about the impact of court rulings on our communities, our opportunities and our rights.