Taking better care of those with disabilities

Posted on Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 10:47 am

There is an undercurrent to the court-ordered annual reviews of how well the state of Tennessee takes care of people with intellectual disabilities, and it can be summed up in one word: disrespect.

Not by the agency whose job it is, but by those elected officials who, by their lack of respect, make it impossible to do that job.

When adults with an IQ of 70 or less are placed under state care, that does not make them any less of a person. It certainly does not make their family and friends less concerned about their welfare. So for the state not to conduct independent reviews when someone in its care dies unexpectedly is a failure of leadership, of stewardship and of basic humanity.

A Tennessean series on the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities begins today by noting that deaths in group homes nearly doubled, from 19 to 34, from 2009 to 2013.

As for the thousands living in the state’s group homes, we have to be worried about their continued safety. According to an annual review filed last month in U.S. District Court, staffers in some group homes have failed to report when a patient falls, fearing retaliation; defects in equipment have caused injuries to patients; staff have been found sleeping on the job; and physicians have not been developing medication plans for patients and have been improperly administering psychotropic drugs.

After having been pushed for years on the point, DIDD last week agreed to submit death investigations to an independent overseer, along with making autopsy results and other materials available. The department also was urged to follow its own policy and conduct a trend analysis of care provided to those who died and follow up with recommendations on how to prevent repeating dangerous mistakes.

To get to the root of the problem, we must look beyond DIDD itself, to the decisions made in the 1990s to relocate state patients from large “warehouse” institutions to small group homes.

It seems that the only definitive state action taken after the transition was to cut funding to DIDD or the departments that preceded it. Year after year, the General Assembly slashes the budget for intellectual or developmental disability programs, despite having ordered that care into law.

There may be some lawmakers and members of the administration who care about the patients in DIDD’s care and their families, but you wouldn’t know it from their stated agendas as the General Assembly convened last week.

When will they realize that the state’s most vulnerable adults and children should come first?

-The Tennessean, Nashville

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