Courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division
In 2000, Congress expanded the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act (PAIMI Act) to give federally-funded protection and advocacy systems (P&As) authority to investigate possible abuse or neglect occurring in the community, including in facilities, like schools, that provide services to people with mental illness. Congress’ goal in expanding the PAIMI Act was to fully protect individuals with mental illness. Approximately 13.3 percent of school-age children nationwide receive treatment for a serious mental, behavioral or emotional disorder. Researchers have identified schools as a critical location for screening and support services for children with mental health disabilities. As a result, the national network of P&As plays a significant role in ensuring compliance with both PAIMI and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
This month, the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services filed a statement of interest in federal court in the case Disability Rights New York v. North Colonie Board of Education arguing that the PAIMI Act should be enforced to protect students with mental illness from abuse or neglect in public schools. Specifically, the statement of interest argues that federal law authorizes Disability Rights New York (DRNY), a designated P&A in New York State, to investigate complaints about treatment of students with disabilities at New York State schools. DRNY received six complaints about possible neglect, which led them to open an investigation. As the departments noted in their statement of interest, it is not possible for the Justice Department to investigate every claim of abuse or neglect, but P&As are able to investigate many more PAIMI violations and often represent individuals in administrative hearings and in federal court to challenge abuse or neglect, including unnecessary seclusion or restraint.
The statement of interest highlights the critical role that P&As play in defending the rights of individuals with mental illness and all persons with disabilities, especially when it comes to children. These children, who spend most of their day under the care and supervision of schools, are among the most vulnerable populations served by P&As and schools play an incredibly important role in screening and providing support services for children with mental illness. However, if programs are not properly administered, children may be placed at risk. As the statement of interest argues, the ability of P&As to monitor and investigate allegations of possible harm to children with mental illness in local schools is crucial to the system of protections against abuse and neglect that Congress created when it passed the PAIMI Act.
The department’s filing in Disability Rights New York v. North Colonie Board of Education is just one example of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division’s efforts, especially as it comes to protecting students with mental illness from abuse or neglect in public schools. The division works to achieve equal opportunity for people with disabilities in the United States by implementing the ADA and other statutes. The division’s enforcement, regulatory, coordination, and technical assistance activities, combined with an innovative mediation program and a robust technical assistance program, provide a cost-effective and dynamic approach for carrying out the ADA's mandates.