Judge Orders RI to Fund Disabilities Reform; State Faces Possible Contempt, Fines

By Gina Macris

U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell Jr. today (May 18) ordered the state of Rhode Island to appropriate the money necessary to fund the so-called “sheltered workshop” consent decree. The judge also set short-term deadlines for a series of incremental steps needed to begin changes in the developmental disability system.

 In the case of any missed deadlines or other violations of the order, either the court monitor in the case or the federal government may request a show-cause hearing to determine whether the state should be held in contempt.

 If the Court finds Rhode Island in contempt, the state will pay into a Consent Decree Compliance Fund at the rate of $5,000 a day for each day it is remains out of compliance and $100 a day for each person whose integrated day services are delayed or interrupted by a particular violation. The fund is capped at $1 million a year.

 The judge did not spell out how much the state must budget to fund the consent decree.

 The order comes after an April evidentiary hearing which showed the state had made little progress in gearing up for system-wide changes needed to offer job-seeking services and other community supports for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want them.

 Between 2009 and 2011, the state budget for developmental disabilities sustained an overall cut of about 20 percent and has not yet recovered. Since 2013, expanding caseloads have continuously outpaced increased appropriations, leaving a system of private service providers that operate at a loss.

 McConnell’s order largely follows recommendations of the U.S. Department of Justice, although he reserved for himself the right to decide whether the state must pay into the compliance fund.                                                                                                         

The DOJ would have allowed the court monitor to make the determination, arguing that a contempt finding shouldn’t be needed to trigger payments to the fund.

 In his order, McConnell disagreed on that point.

 He also responded to arguments made by the state that the series of deadlines and other provisions of the proposal originally made by the DOJ “contains ambiguous terms and mandates that are not defined.”

 McConnell’s order says that If the state believes any term “is ambiguous or any mandate ill defined,” it must immediately seek clarification with the DOJ and the court monitor. If the state is still not satisfied, it must promptly ask the court for a hearing on the matter, McConnell said.

 Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal for the remainder of the current fiscal year and the next one would put an additional $24.1 million into the network of private agencies that provide most of the services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

However, a Senate fiscal report raises doubts that projected revenue and expenses in the budget of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals will balance out. In question is a projected $19.3 million in savings from a reduction in group home costs that depends on voluntary moves by residents into private homes with families throughout the state. 

Click here for Judge McConnell's order