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The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled on Friday that the State of Florida violates the rights of children with complex medical needs by keeping some children unnecessarily institutionalized in nursing facilities, while placing other children at serious risk of unnecessary institutionalization.
Following a two-week bench trial in May, the court found that the children in nursing facilities are capable of living in the community. Based on the testimony of experts and family members during the trial, the court also found that parents and guardians of institutionalized children overwhelmingly want their children to live at home, but that they have not been given meaningful options other than institutional placement. The court’s decision, coming after nearly a decade of litigation, marks a major turning point in the treatment of children with disabilities in Florida and vindicates their right to community integration.
The court heard from many families who struggled desperately to keep their children at home despite a lack of services, and others who had no choice but to place their children in nursing homes because they could not get the help they needed. For example, parent Heather Patten testified about having to place her son in a nursing home when he was a toddler, telling the court, “I was scared, and I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I felt like there was no choice.” Another parent, Martin Carrizales, testified that for his disabled teenage stepson, “The help that they would give is that they would put him in a home but I would not be able to take care of him, and that is not what I wanted for him.”
“This is a momentous decision impacting hundreds of vulnerable children and their families,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The court’s ruling sends a clear message that children with complex medical needs deserve to grow up with the love and support of their families and should not be confined to nursing facilities where they are stripped apart from their communities. The Civil Rights Division is strongly committed to ensuring that people with disabilities are not isolated from society but are fully integrated into their communities.”
“This important ruling will help Florida families of disabled children keep and care for their children at home by requiring increased access to medical support and services,” said U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida. “We look forward to seeing the systematic changes in Florida needed to prevent the unnecessary institutionalization of children with complex medical needs.”
The department’s lawsuit challenged the State of Florida’s policies that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and resulted in children with disabilities living and growing up in nursing facilities, separated from their families, friends and community. To remedy its violation, Florida must take steps to ensure that children with complex medical needs can access the services they need to live in their own homes and communities. Florida must also develop transition plans for institutionalized children and engage families to ensure that they can make informed choices about where their children live.
Approximately 140 children with disabilities are currently housed in three pediatric nursing facilities across Florida, and many more are at risk of entering these institutions due to a shortfall of services, including home nursing care. These children live with a range of medical conditions and disabilities, and many are dependent on medical technology such as ventilators. Under the ADA and the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Olmstead v. L.C. – which was decided over 24 years ago – Florida is required to serve children with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, as long as the children or their guardians do not oppose community integration.
For more information on the Civil Rights Division, please visit www.justice.gov/crt. For more information on the ADA, please call the department’s toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301 (TDD 800-514-0383) or visit www.ada.gov. ADA complaints may be filed online at www.ada.gov/complaint.