Federal lawsuit an indictment of Florida's warehousing of disabled youth in elder homes

July 24, 2013 

Florida's heartless warehousing of medically fragile children in geriatric nursing homes must stop. The U.S. Justice Department has taken up that cause by filing a lawsuit against the state Monday, accusing Florida of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The investigative reporting by the Miami Herald over the past few months exposed the indifferent policies followed by the state's Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Health, and the Department of Children & Families. All three agencies are targets of the federal lawsuit, which states the children's segregation and isolation infringes on their civil rights.

In a setting where children share common areas with the elderly, the isolation chokes off opportunities for essential development -- through social and recreational activities and educational programs; and by stronger bonding with family and peers. Some children remain institutionalized for years, even into adulthood. The average stay is three years.

The state also denies parents meaningful options to care for their frail children other than completely inappropriate geriatric nursing homes -- some located hundreds of miles away from the family's home.

While Florida boosted payments for pediatric nursing home stays to $550 per day, state spending on in-home private nursing care dropped by $6 million three years ago. Just as worse, the state kept spending flat on community-based options since 1987. That left many families with severely disabled children, some on ventilators and feeding tubes, little choice but nursing homes -- a "cruel choice," the federal suit states.

This raises the question about whether the state is catering more to business than families -- as reflected by its budget priorities tilted toward nursing homes.

Just as telling is the wait-list for home or community services, which jumped from 14,600 in 2005 to 22,000 in 2012. Florida increased funding for this program in 2013 but only an additional 5 percent of families on the list will be served.

This past September, the Justice Department first notified Florida that the state was in violation of the ADA with more than 220 children institutionalized due to funding reductions for in-home and community-based care. The state's weak response rightfully triggered the lawsuit.

In response to the suit, an AHCA spokesman expressed outrageous hubris by bemoaning the federal action as meddling in state affairs. That's why ADA exists -- to protect citizens from state indifference. That is clearly the case here.

How can Florida justify such mistreatment of families as political? For shame.

The lawsuit is a moral indictment of state policies and priorities in the care of our most frail children. Florida must do better.

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