U.S. District Court in Providence. (Getty photo)
PROVIDENCE — A federal judge has given state officials more time to comply with a near-decade old agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring programs for Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities in line with federal law.
Rhode Island U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Tuesday extended a 2014 consent decree issued after the DOJ filed a complaint against the state over the lack of community support services and employment opportunities for those enrolled in adult-day programs and student transition programs. The complaint claimed some programs were still functionally segregating those with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the wider world, with few opportunities for interaction outside those involved in their care.
The 36-page consent decree called for a series of reforms that would improve communication between the state and clients and improve more consistent job placement for those in the programs.
During an online hearing to review progress on achieving the reforms, McConnell said it was clear that state authorities would not be in compliance with the decree’s July 1, 2024, deadline. He gave attorneys representing the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals (BHDDH), and Department of Labor and Training (DLT) and the DOJ until Sept. 28 to present a new timeline.
“The state has made tremendous progress in putting in place the mechanism for increasing employment,” McConnell said at the hearing’s conclusion.
“Because of that and because of the fact that we’re able to recognize that a year in advance, it seems to make sense to me that the parties should get together under the guidance of the court monitor.”
Under the consent decree, the state was slated to institute program reforms that would assure a greater workforce participation for those in the programs by 2024. Under the decree, 100% of the youth class of 2014, 700 individuals from the sheltered workshop program (83% of the population), and 950 adult day individuals (50% of the 2014 population) would be employed by July 2024.
But as of October 2022, those numbers stood at 70% for youth, 44% for sheltered workshops, and 33% for adult day populations.
“When you look at the first six years, though well intentioned, the focus (of reforms) was really narrow,” said Anthony Antosh, the decree’s court appointed monitor, at the hearing. He added that efforts in the last six to nine months to comply have been substantial.
Antosh, who was director of the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College for 23 years before retiring in 2019, said the COVID-19 pandemic played a large role in delaying many of the reforms. Now the state has a plan and needs time to implement it with heavy monitoring, Antosh said.
“What we will do to monitor rollout is interview large numbers of people to see if it really has an impact on their lives,” Antosh said.
Employment and community participation
Antosh’s July 17 report examined nine areas of interest to the consent decree including: employment outcomes, community participation, administrative barriers, process, funding, transition, capacity and workforce, communication and support, and outreach and education.
Antosh found that where the state faltered the most was in creating employment opportunities. A survey conducted last April by the Sherlock Center found much lower rates than the state had for consistent employment participation by adults and teens enrolled in disability service programs. The Sherlock Center survey found 32% of youths completing programs were consistently working in jobs along with 16% of adults in sheltered workshops, and 14% of adult day program participants.
The inconsistent data pointed to the need for revising definitions for who qualifies for programs and what represents consistent employment, Antosh said.
“Where the negatives lie is in understanding the state benchmark numbers,” Antosh added.
“The intent is essentially to understand the data used and who the populations are and who to track.”
Antosh said he was concerned the state focused too much on vocational training and not enough on ensuring long-term job placement.
“We are concerned in terms of how to prepare people that the state may be stalling out in placing people and keeping them in pre-employment mode,” said U.S. Attorney Nicole Zeitler.
Antosh acknowledged progress made in expanding opportunities for social interaction for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the past five years, For example,
82% of respondents in the April 2023 Sherlock Center survey said they participated in communal activity, up from 73% in 2018. Additionally, 84% of activities took place in public venues and only 13% within member organizations in the most recent survey.
Funding strong point
Antosh expressed optimism that more progress is on the horizon given Rhode Island’s fiscal year 2024 budget increasing spending focused on developmental disabilities system by $75 million.
“There is no doubt in the area of funding, the state has done substantial work,” said Kathleen Hilton, an attorney with DeSisto Law, the Providence-based firm representing the state in the case.
Zeitler said the DOJ would like to see action from the state on its plans moving forward, including more focus on placing people in jobs instead of keeping them in job training and obtaining better data.
“We agree with the court’s monitor that the state has put forward committed effort,” Zeitler said. “The theme starting today needs to be implementation.”
The state, for its part, acknowledged it still has work to do.
“I think a common theme you’ll hear,” Hilton said, “is there’s more work to be done. There’s no doubt about it.”
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