Experts say Washington is decades behind the times when it comes to its treatment of some of its most vulnerable citizens -- people with developmental disabilities. In Washington, more people with these disabilities -- conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome -- are institutionalized than in most other states. That bucks a decades-long trend to stop the segregation of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The series by reporter Susannah Frame looks at the personal, financial, legal and public policy implications of the continued segregation of this population:
Until the early 1970s, people with developmental disabilities were systematically warehoused – cut off from society in institutions where cages, strait jackets, and beatings were the norm. The institutions have changed for the better, with dedicated staff providing a full range of services to residents. But instead of continuing to operate four large facilities, evidence from other states shows Washington should focus on integrating these residents into community settings.
Four decades of scientific research conducted across the country and here in Washington conclude people with developmental disabilities live improved lives when they move out of such facilities. Washington, however, still has four large facilities open, well above the national average. Only 13 states operate more institutions for the developmentally disabled.
A small, vocal minority is fighting to keep the four facilities in Washington state open. Advocates for the institutions include the unions representing state workers who staff them, and relatives of those living in them. The family members said taking their loved one's home away from them would be cruel and dangerous.
Continuing to segregate developmentally disabled adults in institutional settings puts Washington state at odds with experts' researchthat shows this vulnerable population fares better receiving care in a community setting. And it comes at a high cost: Officials with the state's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) say the institutional setting is the most expensive way to care for this population.
in Washington, approximately 825 people with developmental disabilities -- people living with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other disorders -- reside in one of the state's four large facilities: Fircrest in Shoreline, the Rainier School in Buckley, the Yakima Valley School in Selah, and Lakeland Village in Medical Lake. Civil rights experts warn this puts Washington at risk for a lawsuit and in the cross hairs of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.
Despite the level of security and services provided by residential habilitation centers to hundreds of families in Washington state, there is a push across the country to close these types of facilities. The argument is that segregating the developmentally disabled is a form of discrimination that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. RHC supporters, however, say that at the very least, the institutions need to be available for severe cases.
The quality of care at the state's four institutions for the developmentally disabled has been found by government inspectors to be significantly out of compliance. Federal experts who visited the facilities in 2015 found so many violations of state and federal regulations that they took the drastic step of withholding federal funding from three of the four institutions. Federal inspectors froze new admissions at the three facilities for an 11-month period -- until they made the necessary improvements to get back into compliance with the Department of Health and Human Services's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
It’s been sixteen years since the state of Minnesota closed its last institution for people with developmental disabilities. At one point, the state operated nine of them, which they called “state hospitals." In 2000, every person with developmental disabilities in Minnesota attained the same freedom, as the state closed its last institution. Most residents were moved into state-run group homes in neighborhoods, with staff on hand 24 hours a day to meet their needs.
Shawn Fanning's story shows how even developmentally disabled individuals with the highest level of needs can successfully live outside the walls of a state-run institution. For nearly six months the KING 5 Investigators followed Shawn's journey as he transitioned from living at Fircrest to a home of his own.
Lack of funding is keeping about three dozen developmentally disabled adults in forced segregation in one of Washington's four state-run institutions, according to estimates from the Department of Social and Health Services and advocates working to serve this population. Private agencies that serve the developmentally disabled in community settings blame the legislature, which sets limits on how much the state will reimburse the agencies for caring for disabled adults. Those rates, agencies say, are not enough to provide a living wage to their workers.
Families bash KING 5's 'Last of the Institutions' series (April 22, 2016)
Web story: California set to close all institutions for the disabled (March 17, 2016)
Follow Susannah Frame on Twitter: @SFrameK5