US Justice Department sues Arkansas over treatment of disabled, says disabled given no choice

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The federal government accused Arkansas in a lawsuit Thursday of leaving people with severe mental or physical disabilities with no choice but to go into state institutions.

The Justice Department lawsuit accused Arkansas of a "systemic failure" that places people in institutions when the state should pursue less restrictive avenues for their care.

"The state gives individuals with developmental disabilities the draconian choice of receiving services in segregated institutions or receiving no services at all," the lawsuit states.

The federal government accused the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guarantees people with developmental disabilities the right to live in the most appropriate setting for their needs.

The state has six centers for the developmentally disabled that, in all, care for about 1,100 people.

"Arkansas illegally segregates hundreds of individuals in institutions across the state and places hundreds more at risk of needless institutionalization," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "We are acting now to remedy discrimination against these individuals."

Historically, the statewide lawsuit is a rare step for the Justice Department, which under the Obama administration is making a priority of ensuring that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is enforced.

Federal enforcement of the ADA has been an issue in two other states recently.

The Justice Department sued the state of Georgia in January over its seven state facilities serving the developmentally disabled and individuals with mental illness. Last year, the state of Texas and the federal government reached a settlement addressing conditions in the state's 13 facilities and state compliance with the ADA.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has strongly supported keeping his state's centers open.

"The governor feels that community-based care is very important and can be the best choice," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said. "But there are going to be, and there are now, cases where you need these types of centers with round-the-clock, very attentive care that some of these patients require."

DeCample said the state has been reviewing the centers to see where more community-based options, such as group homes, could be applied. But he said Beebe doesn't want to close the institutions.

"The system needs to remain viable in the state," DeCample said.

A spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which administers the centers, said the agency wants to comply with the law, but it differs with the Justice Department about whether Arkansas is in compliance.

"The governor and the Legislature have appropriated millions of dollars to increase community-based options, and we will continue to defend the right for families to choose the services that best meet the needs of their loved ones," spokeswoman Julie Munsell said.

A spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said the office will try to keep the centers operating.

The nine-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, asks that the state be blocked "from administering developmental disability services in a setting that unnecessarily isolates and segregates individuals with disabilities from the community."

The suit also wants a judge to order the state to "administer developmental disability services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individuals with disabilities."

Named as defendants are Beebe, DHS Director John Selig and other state officials.


Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.