Reform of Institutions and Closings of Institutions

The Right to Humane Treatment in Institutional Settings

The courts have played an important role in establishing minimum standards of care for people with developmental disabilities in the United States living in institutional settings. During the 1970s, dozens of lawsuits were filed regarding the abusive conditions in the nation’s institutions, prompted in part by media exposés showing how existing institutions were failing to meet even the most basic needs of the people they were intended to serve.

These lawsuits eventually led to a recognition of the constitutional rights of people with developmental disabilities living in institutional settings to protection and to treatment. These cases also established standards for humane treatment in institutional settings, as well as mechanisms for ensuring that these standards are met.

The constitutional basis for these rulings was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, in Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307 (1982). Unfortunately, however, litigation and court monitoring for compliance with these constitutional standards is still ongoing.

Three significant series of such cases were:

  • Wyatt v. Stickney, 325 F.Supp. 781 (dealing with three Alabama state institutions for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities: Bryce Hospital, Searcy Hospital, and Partlow State School and Hospital)

A quick look at the Olmstead Decision, ADA, Willowbrook State Hospital, and the Welsch Case.

Closure of Institutions

The reform of residential institutions for people with disabilities was accompanied by a growing demand for persons with disabilities to live outside of institutions, in more natural, community settings. The evolution in thinking about the rights of people with developmental disabilities from ensuring humane treatment within institutions, to supporting living outside of institutions, was accompanied by the enactment of state and federal laws supporting the integration of people with developmental disabilities into community settings. This evolution can be demonstrated by the progress of this litigation:

The following series of U.S. Supreme Court cases outlines this evolution in thinking about the rights of people with developmental disabilities from ensuring humane treatment within institutions, to supporting living outside of institutions.

In this video interview, United States Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun speaks about his impressions of state institutions and the line of cases that followed and cited Pennhurst. (Video Source: Library of Congress)

From WPRI Eyewitness News, March 24, 2016

RI Disability Law Center investigating Providence group home after abuse claims

Following reports of suspected abuse of residents and the death of a resident, a Rhode Island Group home for adults with developmental disabilities will close on March 25. Findings from an internal investigation were sent to the Attorney General’s Office and the State Police.  The Disability Law Center has also opened an investigation. (Added 4-22-16)

From KQED News, March 8, 2016

California’s Last Institutions for Developmentally Disabled to be Closed

The last institution in California for individuals with developmental disabilities is closing after insufficient staffing and care at the center and reports of abuse and neglect. (Added 4-1-16)

From The Tennessean, January 3, 2016

Clover Bottom’s troubled history comes to an end

A Tennessee institution, Clover Bottom, is closing after a troubled past. In the 1970s, a lawsuit was brought to end residents being forced to work without compensation. In the 1990s, investigators found cases of neglect and abuse. (Added 4-1-16)

From Independent Record, March 28, 2015

Senate votes overwhelmingly to close Montana Developmental Center in Boulder

The Montana Senate voted to close the Montana Developmental Center, which currently houses 50 residents and has been in Boulder for more than 120 years. There were reports of abuse in the Center, including sexual assault, and claims the Center was unable to keep its residents safe. One senator noted that there were already 18 incidents of abuse in the Center during 2015 alone. (Added 4-1-16)