Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid looks beyond group home victory
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid looks beyond group home victory
As Disability Pride Month wrapped up this week, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid looked back at its victories for disabled Minnesotans and previewed what is on the horizon for their organization. While progress has been made, the organization continues to push for change—in both legal and non-legal forums—for disabled Minnesotans.
In June, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid announced the finalization of the settlement agreement reached on behalf of legal aid clients in the federal case Murphy, et al. v. Harpstead. This class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of Minnesotans with disabilities living in a group home setting who were either not informed about, or given the opportunity, to live outside of those group homes.
“Things people without disabilities take for granted—such as when you wake up, and when you go to bed, when you have to take a shower, what you eat, when you can go out in the community, when can you stay home—those sorts of things—we found within a group home system, for a lot of folks, it was very regimented,” stated Steven Schmidt, supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “That works for some people, but there are also people who want their own choice.”
Per capita, Schmidt says, Minnesota has more four-person group homes than anywhere else. Some individuals in those facilities wanted to move out, but they had no options. Then, they called Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “The issue came about through our intake line and people calling our office. They were saying they were living in a group home and wanted to move, but their case managers did not know what to do and did not have an answer,” Schmidt says. “We found this more and more and it became clear that there was an issue.”
Schmidt notes that Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid attempted to negotiate but that those efforts fell through. “Eventually, we felt compelled to bring litigation.”
After continuing for seven years, the case, finally wrapped up. A preliminary settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Services was reached in July 2022. Per the settlement, all disabled Minnesotans currently living in group homes but interested in more individualized housing situations will be identified. Those individuals, and their case managers, will get information about other possible housing options. Case managers will be required to take housing-related trainings.
DHS will ensure that case managers are guiding disabled Minnesotans in determining their housing choices. Furthermore, DHS will now create a system to monitor whether the efforts to move an individual who is 18 or older, has a Disability Waiver, lives in a licensed CRS facility, and who wishes to switch housing situations is successful.
“The group home has always been the default option,” Schmidt asserts. “We really hope and think that this settlement will help with a culture change. The suit was never about getting rid of group homes, but it is about not having them be the default option.”
Under the settlement, some disabled Minnesotans will get a choice to not live in group home settings. “The goal of the case, and what we hope will be achieved by the settlement, is increasing that choice,” Schmidt reiterated. “We think it is moving the ball forward.”
In addition to these agreements, the settlement also includes the award of $1.138 million in attorney fees and costs. The attorney fee award is the largest received in Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s history. “It recognizes the zealous representation we put forth for our clients, our fortitude in seeking systemic changes when the law is not followed, and will allow us to continue our work for social justice,” noted Legal Aid attorney Justin Perl.
Following the approval of the settlement, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid turns its attention to other crises that, by and large, stem from not enough staffing. “Probably the biggest issue we are seeing right now is staffing shortages,” Schmidt declared. “There is a shortage of people available to provide direct care, in all settings, really.”
“Some of these direct care jobs don’t pay, in my opinion, what they should,” Schmidt avowed. “It is often difficult to attract people to that work.”
Jennifer Purrington, deputy director of the Minnesota Disability Law Center, spoke about other issues on the horizon for disabled Minnesotans. “Something that we are hearing very often, especially post-pandemic, is special education issues,” states Purrington. “Students are ending up in more restrictive settings because schools don’t have the staff to provide them with the services that they need in a less-restrictive setting.”
Some students who might be able to be in a general education classroom with an aide, for instance, might be placed into a different classroom that does not meet that students’ goals, Purrington says. This is putting students, who are already behind post-pandemic, at a greater disadvantage. Parents are trying to advocate for their kids but are unable to effectively do so.
“It’s a really tough one to fight legally, at the moment, too,” Purrington stresses. “We have done some research on any great case law or precedent with staffing shortages, and the courts are just not in a place to support the students on the issue at this point.”
“These issues have not gone to the courts as much as we would like them to,” Purrington asserts. “The precedent does not exist.” There is not much law on staffing shortages in school settings, Purrington maintains, but there is precedent in cases with settings such as juvenile detention centers. It is not an exact fit. “That’s disability law in a nutshell,” Purrington declares. “It’s pretty new. We are always dealing with precedent issues.”
“Being a disability law attorney requires a lot of creativity and pulling from other relevant areas that could be tangential to what we are doing.”