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Florida is being sued over its grim treatment of disabled children
Special-needs kids have wound up in geriatric nursing homes, thanks to aggressive budget-slashing
 
The Justice Department has accused Florida of effectively forcing disabled children out of their homes.
The Justice Department has accused Florida of effectively forcing disabled children out of their homes.
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The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit this week accusing Florida of warehousing 200 disabled children in nursing homes, after the state cut safety-net programs that would have enabled them to stay at home. Federal investigators, who visited six facilities for the elderly, said that there was no reason for many of the kids to be there, and that some would clearly have been better off at home or elsewhere.

The case is a potentially high-profile showdown between the Obama administration and a Tea Party–dominated state legislature that has been cutting spending wherever it can. Three years ago, the state cut $6 million from a program to cover nursing for people wishing to stay out of institutions.

The Justice Department's civil-rights division is accusing the state of violating the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which bars discrimination against people with special needs. By cutting off aid, Florida has allegedly left families with no way to care for disabled kids other than to turn them over to a nursing home.

Florida has plenty of critics on this one. Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones says the state's hardline fiscal conservatives are refusing to spend money on society's most vulnerable children, whose lives would be much better if they were surrounded by their loved ones.

The state even went so far as to turn down $37.5 million in federal money that would help move children out of nursing homes, all because the money was seen as part of ObamaCare. Not even the threat of a civil rights lawsuit, apparently, was enough to get the state to do more. [Mother Jones]

This is not the first time the Obama administration has tried to force a state to do de-institutionalize the mentally disabled, as well as people in fragile health who could be cared for at home. Since 2009, the Justice Department has filed similar suits against 11 states.

Some of the children at the heart of the latest suit have suffered traumatic brain injuries and need to be on ventilators with round-the-clock nursing care. It can be much more expensive to care for them at home, without assistance from the state. That is why so many have wound up in geriatric nursing homes — some remaining there for years.

The state's Agency for Health Care Administration says the federal government is meddling in Florida's affairs. Agency Secretary Liz Dudek said in a statement Monday that the state has been improving an "already strong program," noting that 31 children with disabilities have been discharged from nursing facilities this year alone.

Dudek slammed the Obama administration, saying in a news release that the lawsuit "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."

Now it's up to a court to decide whether the Justice Department is trying to score political points, or to defend people who can't defend themselves against the effects of partisan budget-slashing.

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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