Mentally disabled need adequate care

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This Landmark News Service editorial first appeared in the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk.

The state agency charged with protecting the rights of disabled people says Virginians with intellectual disabilities are better off in the community than in state institutions.
Given the lack of care many received in those centers — 184 injuries and deaths caused by abuse or neglect between 2007 and 2011 — the agency is probably right.
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Justice found that conditions in the institutions violated constitutional standards.
Insufficient state spending and inadequate community services that resulted forced too many disabled Virginians to remain in overly restrictive settings.
Since then, the state has been negotiating a settlement that by 2020 would close four of the five institutions housing about 1,000 mentally disabled residents.
[It would close the Southwestern Training Center in Carroll County. The only one slated to remain is the Southeastern Virginia Training Center in Chesapeake.]
Under the agreement, 4,100 new Medicaid waivers would help residents transition to community services, which would be increased to include housing.
But that assumes money for community services doesn’t disappear the way it did when states closed mental institutions in the 1970s and charged communities with their care.
Many of those who were sent home wound up on the streets or in jails. Today, entire jail wings are reserved for inmates with mental illnesses.
The Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy said the settlement is important because it requires more services and integrated housing for clients, as well as oversight by an independent reviewer to investigate complaints and monitor care.
The critical component, though, is judicial oversight. The settlement will cost $2.1 billion, most of which will be borne by the state. That money must not be allowed to disappear into other priorities.
Sadly, the propensity is for state lawmakers to shift burdens to localities, which have neither the money to pay for them nor the ability to raise it.
To Virginia’s great discredit and shame, local jails already are too often holding centers for people who need mental health services more than punishment for a crime.
It would be inhuman if Virginians with intellectual disabilities suffered a similar fate.