Feds Charge Florida Over Mishandling of Disabled Children

PHOTO: Teen in wheelchair
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The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the state of Florida, alleging disabled children there have been systemically segregated and isolated in nursing homes when they should have been eligible for home health care.

The suit alleges Florida violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that the state provide "reasonable accommodations" for parents of children with disabilities.

For example, a Florida mother traveled two hours a day to visit her son who was forced to live in a nursing home for three years because the state denied him the home health services his doctor prescribed after a near-drowning left him in need of a ventilator, according to a DOJ document.

"Children have a right to grow up with their families, among their friends and in their own communities," Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement, explaining that the disabled children's rights were solidified in a 1999 Supreme Court case. "The violations the department has identified are serious, systemic and ongoing and require comprehensive relief for these children and their families."

Read about a disabled Florida teen who died the day after her mother lost custody to the state.

Another child stuck in a nursing home, a teen in a wheelchair, asked nursing home staff members to help him leave his room in front of federal inspectors, but the staff just wheeled him over to three infants and toddlers to listen to nursery rhymes, according to the suit.

Federal investigators also noticed that disabled children in nursing homes seemed banished to the second floor in one facility and blocked from the outdoors by a smoking section for the elderly in another.

Although the DOJ issued a letter to the state in September 2012 and tried working with it to halt these and other practices, it says 200 children are still unnecessarily stuck in nursing homes, according to federal complaint filed yesterday. The suit says parents were either given too little home care, from nurses, for example, or that hours of care automatically decreased year after year.

"The Department has determined that compliance with the ADA cannot be secured by voluntary means," the complaint reads.

According to the complaint, Florida reduced funding for and access to home medical care for disabled children, failed to prevent them from inappropriately being placed in nursing homes and failed to offer them an opportunity to return to the community.

"Some children have spent years in a nursing facility before receiving screening required under federal law to determine whether they actually need to be in a nursing facility," the Department of Justice said in a statement.

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But the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration said the state had already made improvements, which include releasing 31 children from "pediatric nursing facilities" to their homes and another six children from hospitals to their homes.

"Today's Obama administration action shows that Washington is not interested in helping families improve but instead is determined to file disruptive lawsuits with the goal of taking over control and operation of Florida's Medicaid and disability programs," said the state agency's secretary Elizabeth Dudek.

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