Cooper administration should bring same approach it brought to education funding to serving people with disabilities

Published December 7, 2022

By Rob Schofield

North Carolina has generally done a poor job of serving developmentally disabled children and adults. (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the most hopeful developments to occur in decades with respect to the public services, systems, and structures provided and maintained by the state of North Carolina was the recent seminal state Supreme Court ruling in the landmark Leandro education funding case.

By directing the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars currently squirreled away in savings accounts on the state’s long-neglected public schools, the high court struck a powerful and vitally important blow for basic human and constitutional rights and the simple premise that government should not be permitted to deny those rights simply because elected officials stubbornly choose to spend money elsewhere, or not at all.

And one party that deserves a special measure of credit for helping to bring the Leandro case to a head after decades of maddening inaction is Gov. Roy Cooper. Though effectively a defendant in the case, Cooper recognized from early on in his administration that the state’s incessant delays and failures in providing all the state’s schoolchildren with access to the sound basic education to which they’re constitutionally entitled was, effectively indefensible.

So instead of renewing the state’s shameful record of stonewalling and excuse making, Cooper appointed people to work with the plaintiffs to fashion an effective and workable solution and, ultimately, helped push it across the finish line.

All of which makes the administration’s stance with respect to another realm of vital state government services all the more inexplicable and perplexing.

The subject is services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and to say that the state of North Carolina has generally done a poor job of serving these individuals over the years – one that’s even worse in many ways than the job it’s done serving schoolchildren – would be a big understatement.

As has been made plain repeatedly over a period of decades and, in particular, of late in a five-and-a-half-year-old lawsuit known as Samantha R. that challenged North Carolina’s lack of adequate home and community-based services for people with IDD, a better word would be “lousy.”

Thanks to pathetic funding and maddening systemic inertia, more than 16,000 people in immediate need of direct services are stuck on a Kafkaesque waiting list that can take years to traverse. The list is so long and the pace at which it advances so glacial, that people regularly die before ever getting to the top.

It’s in light of this outrageous situation that Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour issued an order in November in the Samantha R. case that sets hard timetables for moving people out of institutions and getting them the services they need to live in the community.

As State Reps. Pricey Harrison and Marcia Morey recently noted in an on-the-mark op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer, services to the IDD community of the kind contemplated in the order – not unlike public education – amount to nothing less than basic societal infrastructure.

Given the Cooper administration’s admirable stance on public education, it’s a solution to which you’d think the state Department of Health and Human Services would have readily agreed. As with Leandro, the overriding issue here is money. The services needed will take a lot of it – more than North Carolina has been willing to spend – and it’s clear that changing that situation requires the kind of vision, courage, and pressure on the General Assembly that Cooper brought to the Leandro case.

Unfortunately and disappointingly, no such breakthrough has been forthcoming. Instead, the department is appealing Baddour’s ruling and further delaying a permanent solution.

At a press event last week, HHS secretary Kody Kinsley claimed that the judge’s order would actually harm IDD services – and even give rise to homelessness – by rendering existing residential facilities unviable as residents were returned to the community to receive the services to which they’re entitled.

But as Virginia Knowlton Marcus, executive director of the nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiffs in the case – Disability Rights NC – explained in a powerful retort, this argument comes up woefully short. The Disability Rights lawyers have made plain to the state and Judge Baddour that, like the plaintiffs and their attorneys in the Leandro school funding cases, they’re delighted to work closely with the state to effect a smooth and rapid systemic transition – one that keeps existing facilities viable while clients who wish to return to the community are finally afforded that opportunity.

And, as she also noted, a plan that creates a measly 1,000 new slots in 2023 – one of the supposed breakthroughs DHHS trumpeted in last week’s press event – won’t even keep pace with the massive waiting list’s current rate of growth.

The bottom line: Like building a constitutional school system for hundreds of thousands of children – half or more of them of very low income – serving tens of thousands of people with IDD is vitally important, if demanding and expensive, work. But after decades of tragedies, reports, lawsuits, and court rulings, it’s long past time for both the Cooper administration and the General Assembly to own up to this hard reality, live up to their moral and legal duties, and become a part of the solution rather than a roadblock.