By Michele R. Marcucci, Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- Advocates for the developmentally disabled have filed a class action lawsuit they hope will move disabled people out of state institutions and pour badly needed dollars into community services for them.
The suit, announced Friday at a national conference on disabilities in Oakland, accuses state officials of discriminating against disabled people by failing to fund and create services that would allow them to live in their communities instead of in institutions, as required by state and federal disability laws.
In addition to community services, the suit seeks easily-understood information on community options and adequate assessments to determine which care options might be best for people with autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities.
The suit was filed Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of a dozen institutionalized people, three community agencies and two taxpayers -- but could represent a class of 6,000 disabled people living in institutions.
"The community system is fraying, and we need additional resources," said Pat Napoliello of Arc California, one of three advocacy groups named as plaintiffs.
While the state spends an average of $169,000 a year per person to care for the roughly 3,700 people still living in the state's five remaining institutions, disabled people who live in their communities receive less than half that, said Ellen Goldblatt of Protection and Advocacy Inc., the statewide legal advocacy group that filed the suit.
A previous lawsuit moved thousands of people out of California's institution in the early 1990s. But last year, more people moved in than were moved out, presenters at the conference said Friday.
In addition to being cheaper, advocates argue that community care offers a chance for a better life.
"It's about quality of life. It's about the right to choose where to go on the weekend, what to watch on TV, what to eat, when to go to bed," said Napoliello, whose disabled 21-year-old son lives in his own apartment with a helper.
But the former head of a group that represents parents of some institutionalized children questioned whether the suit could improve community care. Barbara Turner, former head of the Sonoma Developmental Center's parents group, said she had doubts due to the state's declining budget situation and what she feels is a lack of fiscal accountability in the community system. Parents of institutionalized children have also questioned the safety of community care.
"In my humble opinion, it's full employment for lawyers. It doesn't do a thing for the developmentally disabled," said Turner, who added she was still reading the suit.
Avery Russell, a plaintiff in the suit who was moved from a Red Bluff group home to Agnews Developmental Center in San Jose due to a syndrome that gives him an insatiable appetite, said he fears for his safety at the developmental center. He wants to move to Oregon to be closer to family, he said.
A Santa Clara County court ordered the regional center that handles Russell's care to find community placement for him in October. But the center, which had told Russell he needed to lose weight before he could leave Agnews, has yet to do so.
"I want to be on my own. I'd be happy to be on my own," Russell said. "I want to live close by my family."
Three state agencies, their directors and the state's 21 regional centers -- the local nonprofits charged with administering care to the majority of the state's developmentally disabled people -- were named as defendants in the suit.
Officials with the Department of Developmental Services, one of the agencies named, would not comment on the suit.
Bob Baldo of the Association of Regional Center Agencies also questioned whether the suit could improve community care in California. But he said it could help provide momentum for those changes in concert with a bill by Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) to shutter the state's remaining institutions and increase funding for community care and another, separate lawsuit pending in federal court.