Closing arguments made in Murray Center case; ruling expected in March

News-DemocratJanuary 9, 2014 

— A lawyer for Illinois argued Thursday that a lawsuit against the state's plan to close its Warren G. Murray Developmental Center is being fueled by fearful employees and by guardians who aren't open-minded to other living options for their loved ones.

But an attorney for the Murray Parent Association, the lead plaintiff, argued the state is violating federal laws by trying to shoe-horn all people with developmental disabilities into group homes -- a cheaper alternative to state institutions.

The attorneys made those assertions during closing arguments Thursday in a bench trial before U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen in the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago. Aspen told the lawyers he wants them to submit additional arguments in writing, then will issue a ruling, likely around early March.

"Who's funding the lawsuit? Employees, in large measure," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ioppolo, noting one check alone for $30,000, given by an employee group to the parent group for legal expenses.

Ioppolo argued that most of the Murray residents' guardians -- typically parents and siblings -- have stonewalled state efforts to find suitable, alternative homes for the residents. Most Murray guardians for example have refused to allow access to the residents' medical files, for purposes of being evaluated by a state-contracted agency. The evaluations are being conducted to see if a group home, typically with two to four bedrooms, would be an appropriate placement for each resident.

Ioppolo said some guardians instead "were interested in litigation. They are not interested in placement."

The state attorney said some parents claim they're being told by the state that group homes are the only alternative, but all written communications with the parents suggest otherwise.

"They say it and they say it and they say it, and there is not a gram of truth to it," Ioppolo argued.

Plaintiff attorney Judy Sherwin argued that the state's claim of offering alternatives other than group homes is "an illusion." She said Illinois cannot reach its stated goal of reducing the population at its seven developmental institutions and still claim to be giving all Muray residents the option of residing in a state institution.

"Our people are not stupid. They know what they're hearing," Sherwin told the judge.

Sherwin argued that although roughly 35 people from Jacksonville Developmental Center, which the state previously closed, did end up going to other state-operated institutions, "that's only because the state didn't know what else to do with them."

The plaintiffs argue that some Murray residents' disabilities are so profound, only a state institution can handle their needs. Sherwin argued that the residents' rights under federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, will be violated if the state doesn't operate state instutions.

Aspen asked Sherwin two questions on that point:

* "If the state did not have a Murray Center, would they have to invent one?"

* "You believe the ADA requires a nurse on premises 24 hours a day?"

Sherwin said the state has to offer "reasonable accommodation," and she said she finds fault in "the manner in which they're trying to get rid of" Murray Center.

The judge also asked what the plaintiffs' position would be if the state "fixed all the flaws," if there are any, in the way the state is closing the center and transferring residents. Sherwin said the plaintiffs would ask that the state be ordered to provide viable placement options.

TESTIMONY THURSDAY

An underling of Gov. Pat Quinn testified Thursday that he recommended holding off on the development of alternative homes in the Centralia area for Murray residents until "things cooled off."

Mark Doyle, a Quinn employee who is overseeing the transition of Murray residents to group homes and other facilities, was called to testify by the plaintiffs. Plaintiff attorney Daniel Saeedi asked Doyle about an email Doyle sent to Quinn staffers and others about the possibility of helping to develop group homes in the Centralia area.

Doyle admitted that he recommended the state not pursue the development of such homes "until things cooled off in Centralia." He also admitted that parents and guardians were not informed about that recommendation.

Saeedi asked Doyle, "Do you think that is important information for the parents to know?"

Doyle replied, "At that time, it was not."

The plaintiffs are trying to show that Murray Center residents who are forced to leave the institution will have their rights violated, because their only other real option will be to move into a small group home. Doyle also gave testimony indicating only a few dozen openings are available at the state's six other institutions for the developmentally disabled.

Under questioning by Ioppolo, Doyle explained that development of group homes has been a difficult proposition in the Centralia area, where there's fierce opposition to closing Murray. Doyle said he spoke with seven different operators of group homes, but they had little interest in developing more homes in the Centralia area.

Doyle said workers at existing group homes in the area have been subjected to harassment, including being photographed outside the homes. He also said there have been incidents of "peaking in the windows" at the homes.

"It frightened the staff that worked there," Doyle testified.

ABOUT THE CASE

The plaintiffs say the state wants to put all people with developmental disabilities into community-based group homes, which are privately operated but publicly financed. The plaintiffs argue that group homes can't adequately handle the needs of some people who have profound disabilities.

The state admits that it prefers placement in groups homes for most people with developmental disabilities, primarily because they're a more modern way to care for those people, and because most people prefer residing in a home rather than an institution. The state argues that it has no plans to close all seven of its institutions, but that it's a state decision on whether to operate the institutions, not a federal court's.

In addition, the state says placement in a group home instead of an institution saves the state about $100,000 per year, allowing Illinois to spread its limited resources among a growing number of developmentally disabled who need services.

The state says it cannot force anyone into a group home, and in fact will help place any Murray Center residents into other state institutions, into private institutions, into group homes or into their own homes, with support services.

The plaintiffs are asking for a temporary injunction, prohibiting the state from closing Murray and other state institutions. The next step would be to seek a ruling on a request for a permanent injunction.

Murray currently has about 225 residents and about 530 employees. The state says the cost to operate Murray was $39 million in 2013.

For more on this developing story, return later today to bnd.com.

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