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Judge Ends 10 Years Of Federal Oversight At "State-Of-The-Art" Institution
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
March 28, 2006

SOUTHBURY, CONNECTICUT--Just two months after three former staff members were charged with crimes related to the choking death of a Southbury Training School resident, a federal judge has called the facility a "state-of-the-art model of institutional care" while releasing the World War II era facility from nearly 10 years of federal oversight.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Connecticut in 1985 over unsafe conditions and practices that put at risk the safety and health of residents with developmental disabilities at the state-run institution. The following year, the state stopped new admissions to the facility.

In 1996, U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns appointed a federal court monitor, called a "special master", to oversee conditions at STS. Since then, the state has poured millions of dollars into repairs and upgrades at the facility that was originally built in 1941.

Last Friday, Judge Burns said the state has improved psychological, medical and physical therapy services for Southbury's 554 residents to the point where 94 requirements outline in a consent decree had been met and the court monitor could be released.

"Ten years ago, this court found systemic flaws at STS which placed residents at risk of great harm, even death," Burns wrote in her 13-page ruling. "Today, residents at STS are safer and benefit from a state-of-the-art model of institutional care."

The judge's decision now opens the door for her to rule on a 1994 suit filed against the state by The Arc of Connecticut, People First of Connecticut, and the Western Connecticut Association for Human Rights. Those community advocates cited instances where Southbury residents were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and argued that they would get better care outside the institution in smaller community settings.

Judge Burns presided over the nine-month federal trial in 1999. After the trial ended, she asked both sides to work out an agreement, but the negotiations soon broke down.

Peg Dignoti, Executive Director of the Arc of Connecticut, told Inclusion Daily Express that the community advocates' suit focused on improving conditions for Southbury residents, primarily by moving them into the community.

"I don't care how decent the care is at the moment, if people are denied the opportunity for a home in the community, they are still being denied their freedom," Dignoti said in a telephone interview this week.

Dignoti noted that one cannot deny the reality that Southbury's residents are aging: The average age is 59 years, with an average of 44 years housed at the institution.

"People there are dying," she said. "Eventually the state will have to face that fact."

While other states and nations have eliminated large institutions or are in the process of doing so, Dignoti worries about talk of turning Southbury into a geriatric facility, or nursing home -- something she said community advocates would strongly oppose.

"We think people being segregated because of developmental disability is bad enough, but also being denied freedom because of age is even worse."

"People have a right to live in the community and to phase down the institution," she added.

In January, former Southbury workers Kimberly Rivnack and Barbara Williams pleaded not guilty to second-degree manslaughter charges related to the June 2005 choking death of Southbury resident Rosemary Hicock. They and staff member Evelyn Mensah were also charged with first-degree reckless endangerment.

Investigators say the three left Hicock -- who was not supposed to eat uncut food -- alone in a car with a hamburger during an outing while Rivnack went shopping at a T.J. Maxx. When Williams and Mensah saw Hicock flailing about in the car apparently trying to catch her breath, they allegedly went to look for Rivnack instead of rescuing Hicock.

Related:
"End Of U.S. Oversight At Training School Shifts Onus Back To State" (Hartford Courant)
Former Southbury Staff Plead Not Guilty In Resident's Choking Death" February 1, 2006 (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)

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