What gave Idahoans with disabilities the right to choose where they live?
Families of several patients are suing the state over abuse that was discovered at the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa.
They filed the lawsuit this week as a class action against the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the center, which is also known as SWITC, or by its former moniker, the “state school.”
Their lawsuit accuses SWITC of “unlawful, inhumane, cruel and indefensible treatment.”
The families have a couple of goals, their lawyers told the Idaho Statesman on Thursday: They want the state to develop an “Olmstead plan” for SWITC residents to live in the community instead of being institutionalized; and they do not want the facility to continue operating as it does now.
An “Olmstead plan” refers to a U.S. Supreme Court case that requires states to make sure people with disabilities aren’t segregated and can be integrated into the community if that’s best for them. Other states have created Olmstead plans.
“The Supreme Court has articulated what the state should be doing in terms of transitioning people into the community,” said Shamus O’Meara, a Minneapolis-based attorney representing the families.
“There is no transition” in the current system, he said. “The state needs to be held accountable for the absence of properly transitioning people into the community.”
The lawsuit also says the families are seeking a federal investigation into civil rights violations.
The plaintiffs are Erika Dreyer, parent of minor patient B.B.; Jamie Foruria, representing the estate of Drew Rinehart, who died in SWITC’s care; Penney Pease, parent of Nickolas Pease; William Benjamin, parent of Nathan Benjamin; Wendy Mastroeni, guardian of Michael McNamar; Shelby Bloom and Wendy Gilnet, parents of Colby Bloom; and any other parents or guardians of SWITC patients.
Families sought Idaho Health and Welfare settlement
The families last month sent a demand letter to the state, warning that they planned to pursue a class-action lawsuit. They said in the letter that they wanted to meet with state officials to discuss the allegations and a possible settlement that “appropriately addresses all issues.”
That didn’t happen, according to O’Meara.
“The response from the state has been either nonexistent or willfully insufficient,” he said. “We remain hopeful that the state will do the right thing and sit down and resolve this with us.”
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare “takes all allegations made about the health and safety of individuals with developmental disabilities very seriously,” spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said in an email to the Statesman on Thursday. “The department has communicated with the plaintiffs’ attorney and remains willing to discuss and attempt to resolve the plaintiffs’ concerns without resorting to court action. The department is also committed to ensuring that individuals at the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center receive the care and respect they need and deserve.”
Years of legal, investigative action against state-run hospital
SWITC treats residents who have developmental delays and mental illnesses, as well as some serious health conditions. It is operated by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
The class-action lawsuit follows two years of scrutiny and legal action over the conduct of SWITC workers and management.
Health and Welfare in 2017 conducted an internal investigation and found that patients had been physically and psychologically abused.
“The investigation revealed a localized issue involving six employees,” the department said then. “Four employees were aware of the psychological abuse by ... two employees and did not report it, which constitutes neglect.”
DisAbility Rights Idaho, the state’s designated advocate for people with disabilities, last year said it found dozens of abuse and neglect incidents at SWITC, among other serious problems.
The state also has been sued or threatened with potential lawsuits by other patients’ families, as well as former employees who said they were fired after raising concerns about patient safety.
The lawyers representing the families are Charlene Quade and Sean Beck of C.K. Quade Law in Boise; and O’Meara and Mark Azman of O’Meara, Leer, Wagner & Kohl in Minneapolis.