- Associated Press - Friday, September 8, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A judge on Friday dismissed a long-standing lawsuit over Tennessee’s treatment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, ending federal oversight of state programs.

Gov. Bill Haslam lauded U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw’s dismissal of the case filed in 1995. Haslam said Tennessee has “fundamentally changed the way we serve some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

The Justice Department and the People First of Tennessee sued over conditions at three state facilities: Clover Bottom Developmental Center in Nashville; Greene Valley Developmental Center in Greeneville; and Nat T. Winston Developmental Center in Bolivar. A separate lawsuit concerning the Arlington Developmental Center was dismissed in 2013.

All four developmental centers have since been closed, with the state directing thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to home- and community-based care.

In 2015, parties to the lawsuit agreed to an exit plan requiring the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Bureau of TennCare to complete several obligations. They included developing training for law enforcement, physicians and caregivers around the special needs of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The department also agreed to revise support plans to include the person’s “vision of a preferred life” and ways to implement that vision; implement a new model for dealing with serious psychiatric or behavioral health needs; and create a respite program for times when caregivers may be overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

The state closed the 90-year-old Clover Bottom Developmental Center late in 2015. At its peak in the 1960s, it housed 1,500 people.

That’s when Debra K. Payne, now the commissioner of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, first worked at the facility as a 14-year-old volunteer.

“To walk in the halls and to see countless people in the institutions lined up against the walls, nothing to do all day,” Payne said of her experience in 1968. “Staff were at a minimum at that time. They were desperately trying to feed people, keep them clean.

“That was the minimum of care then,” she said. “It is so different today.”

Payne said a Justice Department investigation in the 1990s stemmed from “a number of deaths that could be attributed to neglect,” but that the state at the time was unwilling to make the necessary changes to avoid a lawsuit.

Haslam said he agrees with chief of staff Jim Henry, a longtime advocate for the disabled, who said “we deserved to be sued.”

Henry recalled instances in which workers at the shuttered facilities would undress people under their care and “run them through what they called the ‘car wash.’

“They’d hose them down just like you would cars and then rinse them off,” he said. “You can imagine the situation that was in and the degradation that it caused people.”

The Haslam administration estimates that it has cost the state more than $300 million to make the changes needed to bring the court supervision of disabilities programs in Tennessee to an end.

“This lawsuit has really taken Tennessee from probably the worst services to the best,” Payne said.

The Justice Department praised the cooperation of state officials and advocates in resolving the case.

“Together, we have pursued this case to enforce the important rights of people with disabilities and to treat these individuals with dignity,” Assistant Attorney General John M. Gore said in a release.

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