A Victory for Deinstitutionalisation in Georgia

There’s been a significant push towards deinstitutionalisation in the United States over the last few years, in no small part due to the Olmstead decision, a major ruling by the Supreme Court that I discussed in a bit more detail here. Short version: Unnecessary confinement of people with disabilities has been deemed a civil rights violation. As a result, the Department of Justice as well as a number of disability rights groups have been suing in a number of states to get people out of institutions.

In Georgia last week:

A sweeping agreement this week between the Justice Department and the state of Georgia highlights an aggressive new campaign by the Obama administration to ensure that people with mental illness and developmental disabilities can get services in their communities — and not be forced to live in institutions.

As part of the accord, Georgia agreed to specific targets for creating housing aid and community treatment for people with disabilities. Those with disabilities have often cycled in and out of the state’s long-troubled psychiatric hospitals in the past. The state said it will set aside $15 million in the current fiscal year and $62 million next year to make the improvements. (source)

This is huge, and will get more help to people who need it in Georgia. The DOJ has been on fire this year with Olmstead-related cases, and the Obama administration has been a major player as well when it comes to pushing the DOJ to pursue deinstitutionalisation and more community-based services for people with disabilities. This is often framed as something ‘too expensive‘ for states to afford, which is I guess a nice way of saying ‘your life just isn’t worth that much to us.’

For people struggling to stay out of institutions and stay in the community, for people in the community without adequate care who are facing the possibility of institutionalisation because they don’t have options, and for people in institutions who want out, legal cases like this recent one in Georgia are huge. Potentially even life and death. It’s particularly galling that many states cling to the ‘too expensive’ cloak when organisations like ADAPT have documented that community based services are actually less costly; yes, it’s actually more expensive to force people into institutions than to let them live in their communities and provide them with appropriate assistance.

The agreement focuses on moving people with developmental disabilities out of institutions into community settings, where they can be closer to their community and family. There are 1,800 people in state mental hospitals, 711 of whom have developmental disabilities, which are genetic disorders that cause cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome. Under the agreement, the state will stop admitting people whose primary diagnosis is developmental disability into state hospitals by July 2011, and instead place them directly into community services.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said in a statement, “I am confident that we finally have an agreement that moves us towards our common goals of recovery and independence for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.” (source)

Another important aspect of this agreement involves providing interventions to people at risk of institutionalisation, preferably before they reach the point of needing it. This is key; it’s not enough to simply change the way people are processed when they start interacting with the system, but to identify community-based needs and fill them before those people end up needing emergency care. Early diagnosis and supportive care is an important part of a programme designed to limit institutionalisation, by keeping people out of institutions in the first place.

This case was filed in part to respond to a series of revelations about horrific abuses in Georgia’s institutions, with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution playing a key role in the unmasking of systemic abuse and other problems. What this case represents, in addition to victory for people with disabilities, is also a victory for the free press. The paper’s decision to cover this issue led directly to more public attention and an outcry, and that resulted in positive change for disabled Georgia residents.

Too often, people with disabilities are covered indifferently in the news or set up as figures of tragedy rather than human beings with their own lives and autonomy and needs. It’s very rare to see one article discussing abuse of people in institutions, let alone to see a series of articles, including investigative journalism, delving deep into this issue and presenting information to members of the public.

I wish that more papers around the United States and in other regions of the world were doing this, because too often I encounter the attitude that institutionalisation should be considered the first option, and that ‘those people’ (you know the ones) would just be better off in institutions. People are routinely shocked when I provide statistics about abuse in institutions, and they shouldn’t be. The fact that they are is indicative of the paucity of coverage disability issues receive in the media.


  1. This is a great accomplishment. Now I do hope people will not be abused in community care, because legislation is one thing, but it takes an attitude change to truly take the needs of PWD seriously without abusing them.

  2. Two things:

    1. In the broader context of an awesome story, I have to admit I got a small thrill seeing autism casually grouped under the genetic disorders. I don’t think it could have happened even a year or two ago, and am incredibly happy that actual science is seeping into reporting that includes autism coverage.
    2. I am not surprised that Georgia had a culture of abuse in their institutions because, aside from the questionable nature of institutions themselves, I had the dubious honour of working with a man who had retired from the Georgia instiutional system. He had been a supervisory ward clerk sort there and was working in a Virginia acute inpatient for kids and teens with psychiatric issues when I knew him. Given his behaviour towards those kids and teens and towards his coworkers, I am not surprised at all. Thoroughly unpleasant.
    Ali´s last blog post ..far too sentimental to forget them