Crucial Case for Mentally Disabled Supreme Court Could Radically Reshape How States Care for the Disabled,

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The United States may be at the brink of an important turning point in the way the nation cares for those with mental disabilities. This week, the US Supreme Court takes up a case that could force state governments to stop using state mental hospitals as what critics say are little more than human warehouses for the mentally retarded.

Advocates for the disabled say the case may be the most important in a century in helping to integrate those with mental disabilities into American society. And it could go a long way in finally closing the door on the nation's well-documented history of ill-treatment of those diagnosed with mental retardation or mental illness. "It's about freedom. It's about society recognizing one's capacity and one's entitlement to lead the same kind of life that everyone else leads," says Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington. The case, argued April 21, involves two women diagnosed as mentally retarded who were being housed at a mental hospital in Georgia, even though care professionals determined they would most benefit from a community-based program. Georgia does not dispute that its own professionals determined that the women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, could live safe and productive lives outside the hospital. But lawyers for the state argue that Georgia must retain the discretion to decide when to move individuals out of a hospital and into locally run programs. Whichever way the court decides, legal analysts say, it will be a significant decision. "If the court agrees with Georgia, it will make the Americans with Disabilities Act a dead letter, at least in the public-services area," says Steven Caley, one of the Atlanta Legal Aid lawyers to file suit on behalf of Ms. Curtis and Ms. Wilson. Other analysts say that if Georgia loses, it could trigger a massive shutdown of mental institutions across the country and force states to set up community-based programs costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Limiting state benefits In the Georgia case, the two women were on a waiting list for community placement and were asked to wait their turn. "It is a hallmark of everyday citizenship, not a mark of disability, to be eligible for some benefits when they become available," writes Beverly Patricia Downing, senior assistant attorney general of Georgia in her legal brief to the court. "No civil rights statute of which we are aware has ever barred such an approach to allocating limited government benefits." Lawyers for Curtis and Wilson counter that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires state governments to immediately transfer mental hospital residents to community-based programs when care professionals determine it would be beneficial. Such community programs include assisted group-living arrangements and small-scale treatment, counseling, and education. Most experts believe community-based programs foster an atmosphere that is more conducive to the happiness and progress of citizens diagnosed as being mentally retarded. …