CHICAGO — A federal judge began hearing arguments and testimony Tuesday in a lawsuit about whether the state can close its Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia.
Plaintiff attorney Judy Sherwin, in her opening statement, said the lawsuit isn't just about Murray Center, because the case will "determine for many years to come" how Illinois cares for people who have developmental disabilities.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ioppolo, in his opening, said most states are moving away from institutionalization of people with developmental disabilities. He said it's the state's prerogative on whether to close one of its institutions, and it's the state's prerogative on whether to operate 15, 10 or five institutions.
"This is a state decision. It's a state judgment. It's not really one the federal courts will interfere with," Ioppolo told the judge.
U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen set aside three days for hearing the case in the Dirksen federal building in Chicago.
Using a format set by the judge, the attorneys are cross-examining witnesses who already have submitted written affidavits.
Tuesday's witnesses included Stewart Freeman, a Clinton County attorney who is serving as a court-appointed guardian for a few Murray Center residents who don't have private guardians, and Karen Kelly, of O'Fallon, who is a member of the Murray Parent Association, which filed the suit.
Freeman filed an affidavit earlier this year, outlining conditions he found when he visited a few group homes where some former Murray Center residents were placed. Freeman had said he found overworked staffs and unsafe conditions. For example, workers at one home went to a store and bought Ensure to pour down a resident's feeding tube because the home ran out of the resident's doctor-prescribed nutrition, according to Freeman.
Ioppolo asked Freeman if it's fair to hold the privately-operated group homes -- also known as Community Integrated Living Arrangements, or CILAs -- to a higher standard than the state-operated institutions. Ioppolo noted that residents at Murray Center have had bad experiences, too, such as broken bones.
Freeman said negligence shouldn't be tolerated at CILAs or at state institutions. "But who's going to complain at the CILA?" Freeman said.
Kelly, who teaches nursing and has an adult son residing at Murray Center, was questioned by Ioppolo about why she has refused to allow her son to undergo an assessment that the state is conducting on Murray Center residents to determine what type of residential setting would be appropriate for each person. Kelly said she has no faith in the process because Department of Human Services officials have indicated to her that all Murray Center residents will be sent to 2- or 4-bedroom group homes. That type of setting wouldn't work for her son, who has the mentality of a child but the strength of a man, and is prone to violent outbursts, Kelly said.
Ioppolo asked Kelly why she's also advising other Murray parents to refuse to cooperate in the assessment process, by not granting permission to access the residents' medical files. Iappolo told Kelly she's not the guardian for all Murray residents, and doesn't know what's best for each individual.
"No, but as a nurse, I want to advocate for all the residents of Murray Center," Kelly said.
An attorney for the plaintiff team asked Kelly if the current trend is to move people who have developmental disabilities from institutions to community-based group homes. Kelly replied that giving lobotomies to people with developmental disabilities was once a "hot trend," too.
Also called to the stand was Rita Winkeler, who is president of the Murray Parent Association and has an adult son residing at the center. Ioppolo questioned her about her claim that DHS officials have been indifferent to her son's residential needs and are "forcing" him into a group home.
Ioppolo asked Winkeler if she's being a good parent when she refuses to even participate in the assessment process for transferring Murray residents.
"Absolutely," Winkeler replied, adding that she didn't want her son to "go through this flawed process." Ioppolo countered that it's only an assessment, not a final decision on placement. He also has noted that DHS can't force any Murray resident into any group home or facility without the consent of the person's guardian.
Ioppolo also questioned Winkeler about donations the parent group has received from Murray union workers for legal expenses, including one check for $30,000.
Some Murray Center employees, who submitted affidavits opposing the closure of Murray Center, were called to the stand. Attorneys for the state asked them if their statements and testimony are swayed by fear of losing their jobs.
"I will easily find another job," said Tracy Howell, a nurse at Murray.
Howell testified that one former Murray Center resident, who ended up getting into a physical altercation with another former Murray Center resident after being placed in a group home, was prone to violence and was a "significant" risk to others, yet the state's assessment process found him to be a suitable candidate for a 2- or 4-bedroom group home.
About a dozen supporters of Murray Center are on hand, after being forced by weather conditions to juggle travel arrangements. Some had planned to travel by rail, but weather conditions canceled their trains and forced them to make the drive.
Aspen opened the proceedings by warning the lawyers to stick "to the issues" and not to play to the audience. "If anything, it's going to antagonize me," he said.
Some courtroom observers gasped when Ioppolo at one point inadvertently referred to Murray residents as "inmates."
HOW WE GOT HERE
In February 2012, Gov. Pat Quinn announced a budget plan that called for the closing of the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia.
The state, which already closed its similar institution in Jacksonville, says adults with developmental disabilities have a better quality of life when they're placed into privately-run group homes. The group homes are publicly paid for but are much less expensive, meaning Illinois can spread its limited resources among a greater number of people needing services, according to the state.
Opponents of the closure, led by the Murray Parents Association, filed a suit in federal court in Chicago. They say some of Murray Center's residents have severe disabilities that can only be handled in an institution, and they dispute the state's contention that community-based care would save the state more than $100,000 per year, per resident.
The plaintiffs argue that the rights of people with developmental disabilities would be violated if the state closes Murray Center and its other institutions because the people would have limited options on where they reside.
The state says it does not plan to close all seven of its institutions.
The plaintiffs are asking the court for an order prohibiting the closure of any state-operated institutions "unless or until equivalent, appropriate replacement services are provided to prevent inappropriate hospitalization, injury or death to residents in violation of the developmentally disabled residents' rights under federal and state laws."
It will likely be several days, possibly even weeks, before Judge Marvin Aspen issues a ruling. At the moment, the plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction. The next step would be to seek a ruling on a request for a permanent injunction.
ABOUT MURRAY CENTER
Murray Center currently has about 225 residents. It used to have about 270, but some have already moved. The center has about 530 employees. The state says the cost to operate the center was $39 million in 2013.