July 23, 2013 5:46 pm

US Justice Department sues Florida for segregating children with disabilities into nursing homes

Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott recently rejected $40 million in federal health care funds earmarked to help transition kids out of nursing homes.

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TORONTO — The US Department of Justice is suing the State of Florida over a longstanding practice of housing children with disabilities in seniors’ nursing homes, alleging the state is violating the civil rights of Florida’s children.

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In its complaint, the DOJ says nearly 200 children with disabilities and significant medical needs are unnecessarily  segregated in nursing homes, when they could be treated in community-based  settings or in their family home had the state provided services to would make that possible.

The department began investigating Florida’s treatment of children with disabilities in 2011, visiting state officials multiple times, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The DOJ has filed 11 similar suits in the US since 2009, since Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez began pressuring states to deinstitutionalize people with disabilities, Mother Jones reports.

In some cases, the complaint says, Florida has relegated children to nursing homes for years without screening to determine whether they need  institutional treatment.

The suit seeks to force Florida to provide care for children who could live at home, as well as compensation for the affected children.

“The ADA requires public entities to ensure that individuals with disabilities are provided services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs,” the DOJ said in a statement Monday.

In a detailed findings letter written to the state last September, the DOJ said nursing homes  aren’t providing development support and that children are neglected for long periods of time.

“They live segregated lives — having few opportunities to interact with children and young adults without disabilities or experience many of the social, educational and recreational activities that are critical to child development.”

Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott recently rejected $40 million in federal health care funds earmarked to help transition kids out of nursing homes.

The September letter criticized Scott’s rebuff of the federal funds – a common theme among Tea-Partiers – as well as the “systematic” cutting of millions from services for people with disabilities.

Medicaid home health care reimbursement rates in Florida haven’t changed since 1987, resulting in nursing shortages and contributing further to unnecessary institutionalization, the DOJ argues.

The state also raised the rates paid to nursing homes who take in kids with disabilities by more than 28 percent since 2004, and later reduced funding for private home care nursing services by $6 million in 2010, leaving families with few other options.

“As a result of the state’s actions and inaction, the state has forced some families to face the cruel choice of fearing for their child’s life at home or placing their child in a nursing facility.  In one instance, the state cut one child’s in-home health care in half.  Her family could not safely provide care themselves to make up for this reduction in services, and they felt they had no choice but to place her in a nursing home,” said the DOJ.

One mother noted in the DOJ letter said she cries all the time thinking of her child, a 5-year-old who became quadriplegic after a car accident and who had been living in a state home for three years. She want to bring her child home, but was told the waiting list for community and home-based services was five to ten years.

The investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division found that many as many as 50 children were held in seniors’ facilities for over five years, separated from their families.

At least 10 per cent of children with disabilities in nursing homes are wards of the state, qualifying for foster care programs. But, the DOJ says, the state neglects to find them homes. In one case, a one-year-old was left at a nursing home in 1997. The state didn’t try to find them a home in the community until last year. The child was 16.

“The State has acted with deliberate indifference to the injuries suffered by the institutionalized and at-risk children,” said the DOJ.

Florida officials have not offered a comment on the lawsuit.

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