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45 Years of Impact Spotlight

Fighting Against Abuse and Neglect in Institutions

Disability Rights Pennsylvania continuously fights against abuse and neglect in facilities.  DRP continues to scrutinize the conditions in facilities throughout the Commonwealth and does not hesitate to act to ensure the safety of institutionalized people with disabilities.

In the late 1980s, our predecessor organization filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Human Services (then the Department of Public Welfare), Richard C. v. Snider.  In the suit, we alleged that staff at the Western State Center (since closed) severely abused residents—striking them with key rings, kicking, taunting, and threatening them.  The settlement for the case resulted in individuals at Western State Center being moved into the community and ensured that no people with disabilities who could live in the community would be placed at the center.

Next, in PPA v. DPW, we filed a lawsuit alleging that residents of South Mountain Restoration Center, a state-run nursing home, were systemically denied the ability to participate in community programs, resulting in their continuing institutionalization.  In response to our suit, DHS argued that providing services to residents in the community was a fundamental alteration of its programs because of budgetary restraints.  The Third Circuit held that the state could not rely solely on budgetary concerns.  To comply with the United States Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, the state had to have a plan to come into compliance with the ADA.  The Court further rejected the state’s argument that individualized patient reviews and treatment team meetings resulted in sufficient progress towards de-institutionalization.

Then, in Torisky v. Schweiker, we litigated a case to ensure that individuals who were involuntarily committed to facilities without a court order had the right to safe conditions.  In Youngberg v. Romeo, the Supreme Court held that people involuntarily committed to state institutions have the right to reasonably safe conditions at their facilities.  In other cases, however, the Supreme Court, placed narrow limits on when the state could face liability for unsafe conditions.  This left open the question of whether individuals who are in a state institution but not involuntarily committed are entitled to safe conditions.  In Torisky v. Schweiker, the Third Circuit answered this question, holding that a court ordered involuntary commitment is not necessary when the commitment is still effectively involuntary.

Most recently, we filed a lawsuit against the Department of Human Services alleging horrendous conditions in Pennsylvania’s three youth development centers.  Youth at these centers—held out as providing state-of-the-art treatment—were routinely restrained and abused by staff members.  This lawsuit is ongoing.