In this post I’d like to start filling in some of the history of the system for people with developmental disabilities that we have in the District today. There’s been a lot of legal involvement in this area, and I’m not a lawyer, so I’m going to keep as much as I can to the essentials.
Forest Haven is really where it started. This was an institution opened in the 1920s in Laurel, Maryland, to house (some would say warehouse) District residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Like many of the large institutions of its type and era it did a poor job, but for a half century it was allowed to continue in existence without getting much public attention. Then in 1976 Harold and Betty Evans, on behalf of their daughter Joy who resided there, brought suit against the city over the deplorable conditions, and this led, in 1978, to the first of many “consent decrees,” or legal understandings between the court and the District government, concerning changes needed in the way the District was treating people at Forest Haven. The idea was gradually to move people out into better living situations while at the same time improving conditions at Forest Haven. At the same time, this flurry of attention to Forest Haven and the Evans case also led to political action in 1978, in the form of a law passed by the relatively new (after enactment of home rule in 1974) D.C. council, which, with only minor amendments, remains the law still on the books as the basis for provision of services in D.C.
After all these years, the Evans case continues to dominate the way in which services are provided in the District. A whole series of further consent decrees have been issued since 1978, including one in 1991 that closed Forest Haven once and for all and moved out the last group of people still living there, and the most recent one in 2006 that established the Department on Disability Services. Huge amounts of legal ink and major efforts by D.C. disability advocates have brought us to the present day, when the District appears close – within a few months most likely – of meeting the final requirements under Evans and being out from under court oversight. Although there have been system improvements and also significant efforts to update the District’s 1978 legislation - most notably the gargantuan but ultimately unsuccessful effort to obtain passage of the Developmental Disabilities Reform Act in 2010 - it’s truly the conclusion of the Evans case which will open the door to the possibility of real reform of the D.C. system.
So we’re very near a crossroads, in terms of the opportunity created by the closeout of the Evans case, to launch a new chapter in the way the District delivers services to its citizens with developmental disabilities. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy road ahead though – far from it. In some of my future blogs I’ll talk a bit more about the ways in which the history complicates the way forward, as well as other hurdles that will need to be overcome.