Settlement reached in lawsuit over mentally ill

Illinois must help thousands of residents move out of large mental institutions and provide them support services as part of a settlement expected to be filed today in a class-action lawsuit.

The agreement, hailed as a landmark by advocates of the mentally ill, gives the state five years to help residents make the transition to apartments and small homes, a process to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor. The settlement needs a judge’s approval and both sides have requested a hearing to consider the specifics of the plan.

Under the agreement, the state would help 256 residents move into community housing by the end of one year. By the end of two years, another 384 residents would get help moving. A draft of the agreement was obtained by The Associated Press.

The lawsuit, filed in 2005 by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, claimed Illinois violates the civil rights of 4,500 mentally ill people living in “institutions for mental disease” by needlessly segregating them in facilities where they are forced to live with dozens, often hundreds, of others with mental illness. For many, according to the lawsuit, their only other choice is homelessness.

Illinois’ practice of supporting the institutions and underfunding alternatives like supportive housing violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the lawsuit.

One of the plaintiffs, Gilbert Parham, 51, has lived in a small room at Columbus Manor, a Chicago nursing home, for nearly 10 years. He said he wants to find a place of his own and get a job. He can manage his own medications for schizophrenia and live independently if he gets some help, he said.

“They’re real slow about helping me get a place. They say, ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ To me, you have to keep on them and keep on them,” Parham said. “I think I need something a little more than this.”

Parham said he lacks privacy, can’t have guests in his room and turns over all of his disability check to the facility except for $30 a month. He shares a room with two other men. One of them interrupted Parham’s interview with a reporter, bursting into a common room, yelling angry obscenities and meaningless accusations about a butter knife.

“That’s one of the reasons why I want to get my own place,” Parham said, calmly ignoring his roommate’s rant. “He does that all the time. He was doing it last night. I just have to get used to that.”

Tony Zipple, CEO of Thresholds, a nonprofit that serves the mentally ill, called the settlement “a great turning point” and a landmark for public mental health in the state. If its implementation respects the intent of the settlement, Zipple said, “five years from now, we’ll really be able to say we’ve come a long way.”

The settlement affects only mentally ill people living in IMDs who could live in the community with services to help them manage their lives.

Illinois has 25 such institutions, all privately owned and for profit, most in Chicago but also in Decatur and Peoria. More than any other state, Illinois has relied on nursing homes to house the mentally ill after shutting down state mental hospitals in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Our goal in resolving this case is to ensure that people with mental illnesses who are capable of living more independently and in a situation that is more integrated into the community have the opportunity to do so with all the appropriate and necessary support,” said Robyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

A separate class action lawsuit, which hasn’t reached a settlement, involves mentally ill people living in other types of nursing homes. More than 13,000 mentally ill people live in traditional  nursing homes, where they’re mixed with frail elderly patients.

Illinois taxpayers spend more than $122 million a year to care for the mentally ill in IMDs, a system largely rejected elsewhere over costs, concerns about residents’ rights and quality of care. The federal government won’t contribute Medicaid money to such facilities, causing the full financial burden to fall on Illinois. Advocates for the mentally ill said the new system will be cheaper for the state.

As part of the lawsuit, mental health experts from Yale University School of Medicine interviewed residents of eight IMDs in 2008. They found nearly 70 percent said they would like to move out, given the opportunity. The majority hadn’t left their facility during the previous month to go to a movie, sports event, community center, church, park, museum or for a job or volunteer opportunity.

The lawsuit was filed originally on behalf of Ethel Williams and Jan Wrightsell, two women who wanted to leave a Chicago facility where they lived with scant freedom, privacy or psychiatric treatment. In 2006, the case was granted class action status.

The lawsuit cites a 1999 landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires community placement of the mentally disabled whenever appropriate. The court said segregating the mentally ill amounted to “unjustified isolation,” while recognizing that states need to maintain a range of facilities for people with mental disabilities.

The Illinois Legislature is considering a number of proposals to reform nursing homes, following news reports of assaults, rapes and murders in the facilities. Gov. Pat Quinn formed a task force to study nursing home safety last year.

Advocates for the mentally ill said Quinn has changed the state’s approach to the mentally ill and made a settlement in the class action lawsuit possible.

Benjamin Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, praised Quinn for showing “real independence from the lobbying efforts of the nursing homes.”

“It would be hard to design something that makes as little sense as this (current system), until you take into account the political power of the nursing home industry and the historic lack of leadership in human services in Illinois, which we have every hope this governor is starting to change,” Wolf said.

The case is Williams v. Quinn.

Read the original article from the Galesburg Register-Mail.

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