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Lawsuit fights for rights of disabled citizens

ST. PAUL -- Best friends Marrie Bottelson and Dionne Swanson want to get their own apartment with studio space for Bottelson's growing art business. But the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper, and "a discrimi...

ST. PAUL -- Best friends Marrie Bottelson and Dionne Swanson want to get their own apartment with studio space for Bottelson’s growing art business.

But the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper, and “a discriminatory residential service system” have kept them from doing so because they have disabilities, says a class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

“I’m 43 years old and I want to have the freedom to make my own choices, basic stuff - like what time I go to bed,” Swanson said in a prepared statement.

She and Bottelson both have cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities. They use motorized wheelchairs and need help eating and dressing. But they are their own legal guardians and could live independently if the resources were in place to help them, the complaint against DHS and Piper said.

Their fellow plaintiffs in the case include two others with disabilities and their guardians. The suit claims all four were “denied the opportunity” to live outside Community Residential Setting facilities through the state’s systemic over-reliance on group homes.

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The suit could impact hundreds of people with disabilities living in group homes who would be better served in more autonomous settings, said Justin Perl of the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Disability Law Center, which is representing the group.

Minnesota’s current effort

The Olmstead Plan - named after the landmark 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case Olmstead vs. L.C. - is the state’s current plan to ensure Minnesotans with disabilities are living and working in the most ideal settings. The settlement terms of a 2011 lawsuit against DHS required the state to formulate the plan, which was released in 2013, approved in 2015 and updated in June of this year.

“Minnesotans with disabilities should have choices about where they live,” DHS’ Piper said in an email. “Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan is our path forward to increase opportunities for Minnesotans living with disabilities to live, work and succeed in our state in the most integrated setting possible.”

The lawsuit says that the Olmstead Plan is inadequate.

Minnesota has more than 3,000 group homes run by both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. More than 13,000 people with disabilities live in group homes statewide, with four or five in each home, Perl said.

While the group-home setting can work for some people who need that level of assistance and control, “one size does not fit all,” and many end up isolated from their family, friends and communities, Perl said.

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Those with disabilities who could live in more integrated settings end up in group homes because Medicaid Home and Community Based Disability Waivers don’t provide the needed range of options for accommodations and services, MDLC attorney Sean Burke said.

Seeking a solution

The lawsuit is looking for injunctive, not monetary, relief. The plaintiffs want the court to help fashion a remedy to address the needs of all people with disabilities, Burke said.

For plaintiff Tenner Murphy, 32, one major need is community involvement.

Murphy has severe physical and cognitive disabilities caused by degenerative brain cancer. Despite this, he graduated from high school, developed hobbies and made many friends without disabilities before he moved into a group home in 2010.

Murphy is very social, but the other residents in his group home struggle to communicate, so he spends most of his days alone, the complaint said.

Fellow plaintiff Jenna Gordon, 24, has various developmental disabilities. In the past six years, she has been placed in four different group homes, the most recent of which is for people in crisis.

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Gordon and her parents insist that she is not in crisis. She just hasn’t found a “setting and services customized to her needs,” the complaint said. They are seeking a living arrangement that gives her more control over staffing and roommates, as well as the ability to choose between being alone and interacting with other people, the complaint said.

“This suit is about the State telling our daughter where and how she has to live, instead of letting her choose,” said her father and guardian, Marv Gordon, in a statement.

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