Today, the 15th Anniversary of Olmstead, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) has reminded us both how difficult and how vital Olmstead is. The newspaper reported on serious and tragic incidents that have occurred in transitioning men and women with developmental disabilities out of Georgia’s state hospitals as part of the Justice Department Olmstead settlement. Buried in the article is the story of Keith McGarrity, who lived most of his life in an institution (from 1963 to 2011), and who is now living a much more meaningful life in the community six miles down the road from his 84 year old father Alvin.
In issuing the Olmstead decision, Justice Ginsburg did not say that states had to immediately transition every person from an institution into the community. Instead, the Supreme Court allowed states to create effective working plans with reasonably paced moving waiting lists in order to accomplish the mandate of Olmstead. Unfortunately, what states did with this caveat was to have a lot of planning meetings, but they took very little action.
In Georgia in 2007, seven and a half years after the Olmstead decision, the state had done very little to comply with its Olmstead obligations. The AJC ran a series of articles entitled the “Hidden Shame” that showed over 100 people with disabilities in the state hospitals had died under suspicious circumstances. The Justice Department followed this up with an investigation of its own revealing multiple incidents of abuse and neglect.
As a result of the Justice Department investigation and subsequent litigation, Georgia finally, eleven years after Olmstead, agreed in October 2010 to begin transitioning people with developmental disabilities and mental illness into the community. This meant that work that should have started in 1999 to build an infrastructure of supports and opportunities for people in our state institutions finally began in early 2011.
Georgia has made remarkable progress (although it still has a long way to go) in providing supports and housing for people with mental illness across the state. It has the most innovative and successful housing vouchers in the country for people with severe and persistent mental illness. It has developed robust supports, case management, and crisis services. Georgia is a national leader in developing and training certified peer specialists so that people with their own experiences of mental illness who are further in their recovery journey can support others with mental illness. According to the Court’s Independent Monitor, Elizabeth Jones, “[t]he building blocks of a system oriented towards recovery are now visible and largely operational.”
Unfortunately, Georgia has had substantial difficulty transitioning people with developmental disabilities. The state, the Justice Department, and advocates have taken these difficulties extremely seriously. For most of the last twelve months, the state has stopped the transitions in order to build up and train its provider community. The Justice Department and the Court’s Independent Reviewer have required the state to come up with a detailed plan by the end of June 2014 (that should become public July 22nd) to map out how the state will successfully meet its obligations for people with developmental disabilities. This will not be easy, but it is vital to enable people like Keith to have the opportunity to live meaningful lives in the community like every other American.
Tomorrow, we will have a 15th Anniversary Event at the Carter Center. The event is led by and run by people with disabilities who care deeply and passionately about the promise of Olmstead. We will hear stories from people whose lives have been transformed due to Olmstead. Thousands of men and women across the country have the opportunity to live and work in the community as a result of the decision.
Yes, making Olmstead a reality is difficult and it must be done right, but it is vitally important!