Miami Herald editorial: Florida violating sick, disabled children's rights

The state can be a savior for children whose families face challenges in raising them. But it can be a lousy parent, too.

The U.S. Department of Justice has slammed the state of Florida for dumping sick and disabled children in nursing homes designed for the elderly.

This is a gross violation of the children's civil rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

What the Justice Department found is shocking: Hundreds of children, some from the time of infancy, are growing up in nursing homes, isolated from others and receiving little education or socialization. Some have been reared, basically, in hospital rooms, a far cry from the "community settings" that the federal law requires.

State Attorney General Pam Bondi says that the state is in compliance with federal law and is fighting a lawsuit filed this year. Given the Justice Department's findings, however, it's time to determine where strict "compliance," which might pass legal muster, turns into the inhumane, costly warehousing of children in inappropriate, harmful environments. Worse, according to advocates for the children, many of them could live at home with their parents at less expense.

Florida, however, has been moving in the other direction, to the detriment of families, their disabled children -- and taxpayers, too.

Since 1990, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act has been used to shut down deteriorating institutions giving substandard care and move the mentally ill and disabled into their own homes or group homes in a community.

But the state has slashed millions of dollars from programs that help parents take care of their challenged children at home; and it has rejected $40 million in federal funds to help these kids remain in or return to their homes.

The state, indeed, is financially strapped, and cuts have necessarily touched many aspects of Floridians' lives. But then why encourage institutionalization by raising the per-diem rate that the state is willing to pay nursing homes to take in disabled children?

And why refuse federal funds that would make the lives of families that much easier? Unfortunately, this has been a frustratingly familiar pattern since Gov. Rick Scott took office -- allowing ideology to trump the health and well-being of his constituents.

Other misguided moves include refusing to implement Medicaid exchanges and spurning $28 million in federal Healthy Start funding.

And, of course, there are other states that will willingly scoop up what Florida rejects, basically, Floridians' hard-earned tax money.

Nursing-home advocates say that the state has six pediatric nursing homes that care for young people 21 years or age and under. They are isolated from elderly patients and get age-specific care and programming, including education, all given in a collaborative environment with parents, medical personnel and educators at the table. The children are often unable to be cared for at home.

Though this appears to be a laudable model of care, Florida should confront the Justice Department's findings with more than just a court challenge.

If a disabled child can remain with its caring family, the state should not encourage institutionalization in private facilities.

If pediatric nursing homes are providing, as advocates say, high-quality, appropriate care for kids who can't be cared for by their parents, then there should be far more than six such facilities.

Once again, the state is being penny-wise and pound foolish. Worse, it's playing havoc with people's lives.