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DOJ: Maine violating ADA, over-institutionalizing children with disabilities

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Maine has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by sending children with disabilities to mental health facilities as it fails to meet their needs in the community, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Wednesday.

In a press release, the DOJ said it concluded an investigation that found the state system “unnecessarily” segregated children with mental or physical disabilities from their communities by sending them to psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment facilities and a juvenile detention center called Long Creek Youth Development Center in Portland.

The DOJ said children with disabilities are more likely to be institutionalized in Maine because of difficulties in accessing behavioral health and other basic needs in the community.

Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general at the DOJ’s civil rights division, said “children with disabilities deserve the opportunity to live at home with the services they need and grow up in the community alongside their nondisabled peers.”

“With the increase in children’s mental health needs during the pandemic, it is more important than ever to provide support to children and families,” she said in a statement.

The DOJ launched the investigation on behalf of advocacy organization Disability Rights Maine, which accused Maine of violating the ADA because it failed to address the basic needs of children with disabilities and institutionalized them as a result.

In a statement, Disability Rights Maine noted the findings were released on the 23rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. In that case, the high court ruled that under the 1990 ADA, people with disabilities have a right to live in the most “integrated setting” that suits their needs.

“The Olmstead decision held that people with disabilities have a right to live and receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs — typically in their homes and communities instead of in institutions,” the organization wrote.

In a letter to Gov. Janet Mills (D) and Attorney General Aaron Frey (D), Clarke wrote of a “troubling picture” in the state. Children with disabilities sit on lengthy waitlists to access community-based services to address their needs, she wrote, forcing families to turn to law enforcement or emergency services after a crisis.

According to Clarke, crisis services are underfunded and understaffed — as are foster care systems — making it still more difficult for the basic needs of children with disabilities to be met within their communities.

The DOJ also faulted the state for using Long Creek Youth Development Center, the only juvenile detention center in the state, to serve as a “de facto children’s psychiatric facility” instead of offering treatment in more integrated settings.

Clarke wrote in her letter that “Maine has long been on notice for these problems” and called on state leaders to address the waitlists and boost resources and services to address the needs of children with disabilities in the community.

“For years, the State has acknowledged that a lack of community-based services for children with behavioral health needs leads to their unnecessary institutionalization,” Clarke wrote. “Despite this recognition, the day-to-day experiences of many families struggling to get off a waitlist or bring their child home from an institution remains unchanged.”

Tags Americans with Disabilities Act Americans with Disabilities Act Department of Justice Disabilities Disability Rights Maine Institutions Kristen Clarke Long Creek Youth Development Center Maine Maine Mental health facilities

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