San Francisco Chronicle
January 26, 2002

State sued
Disabled sue to live in community homes

By Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer

A group of developmentally disabled residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of California yesterday, demanding that they be allowed the freedom to live in community homes instead of institutions.

Thousands of people are isolated and unhappy in institutions, according to the plaintiffs, who claim state officials are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws by keeping the disabled from being part of their communities.

"I want to be on my own. I will be happy to be on my own and close by my family," said Avery Russell, 45, who lives at Agnews Developmental Center in San Jose and suffers from a disability that causes him to be overweight.

Russell joined 11 other disabled plaintiffs and several advocacy groups who filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court, hoping to force the state to give them and others information on community living options and other alternatives to institutions.

The suit names as defendants the state Department of Developmental Services, other state agencies and the 21 private, nonprofit agencies, known as regional centers, that contract with the state to provide care for people with disabilities including cerebral palsy, mental retardation, epilepsy and autism.

State officials said yesterday that they were reviewing the suit and had no comment.

Bob Baldo, executive director of Sacramento's Association of Regional Center Agencies, declined to discuss the suit directly, but insisted that the regional centers are serving the disabled well.

"I think the data does tend to support the idea that people who live in community settings are better off," Baldo said. "But overall the regional centers have done a really excellent job in trying to provide resources in an ever-expanding population that we need to serve."

For the past 35 years, the state has steadily transferred the developmentally disabled from its five hospital-like developmental centers -- in San Jose and Sonoma in the Bay Area -- into community facilities. Critics of the move say clients are more likely to die prematurely in community homes than in developmental centers.

Berkeley Assemblywoman Dion Aroner said the lawsuit should help push through the state Legislature a bill she wrote that seeks to shut down most of the developmental centers.

Plaintiffs say the state is not moving fast enough. They spoke at a news conference yesterday at the Oakland Marriott Hotel, the site of a conference for those who support community living.

"Our clients' needs are urgent," said Ellen Goldblatt, an attorney for Protection & Advocacy Inc. of Oakland. "California has not moved forward to reverse the trend of unnecessary institutionalization."

East Palo Alto lawyer Michael Pyle, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said he wants the suit certified as a class action because he believes that more than 6,000 Californians  urgently need community-centered care.

"We hope the state will choose to spend money on getting in compliance with the law, rather than spending money on lawyers during years of litigation," Pyle said. "I look forward to the day that this case is successfully resolved."

Melbert Schanzenbach, 78, who lives at Sonoma Developmental Center, said he wants to be close to his brother in the Sacramento area. But the Alta California Regional Center there has not found an assistant that he needs to move to a community home.