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Mercury News

October 22, 2010 (Updated October 23, 2010)

Advocates sue Calif. over mental health cutoff

LOS ANGELES -- The elimination of a $133 million state mental health program violates the federal rights of more than 20,000 special education students across California, a class-action lawsuit filed Friday against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and governmental agencies said.

The lawsuit alleges the state violated the Individuals with Disabilities Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by cutting off the program known as "AB 3632 services."

"State entities have the responsibility not to set in motion factors that would deprive children with mental illness or disabilities of mandatory federal services," said Laura Faer, directing attorney for Public Counsel, one of the organizations that filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

The funding was slashed earlier this month when Schwarzenegger used a line-item veto to eliminate it from the state budget.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt Connelly said the suit is without merit.

"The governor's veto is consistent with federal law and past practices in California where school districts have the ultimate responsibility to provide mental health services, not county mental health departments," Connelly said.

Administered through county mental health departments, the 25-year-old program provided special-needs kids with crisis counseling, case management, medication management and residential placement.

Under federal law, special education children are required to be provided services to enable their schooling, Faer said. The suit also alleges special-needs children are being discriminated against because they unfairly bear the burden of the cutoff, she added.

Counties have already started halting the program, putting thousands of children at risk of being booted from foster and group homes and interrupting their schooling, Faer said.

Others are seeing their education jeopardized because they will lose mental stability gained with therapeutic services, she said.

Other organizations taking part in the lawsuit were Disability Rights California, Mental Health Advocacy Services and law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Candis Bowles of Disability Rights California said the support services are crucial to the well-being of the special education students.

"Parents are scared about what will happen next," she said.

Faer said she will seek a temporary restraining order to halt the funding cutoff while the case is being heard.

The lawsuit also names as defendants the state departments of Education and Mental Health, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Los Angeles County Office on Education.

About 8,000 children are affected in Los Angeles County.