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Parents’ lawsuit blames state for shortage of group homes

A group of local parents and caregivers filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday, accusing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration of failing to provide enough group home living opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities.

More than 11,000 people in New York state with intellectual disabilities – including Down syndrome, autism and other conditions – are stuck on a waiting list because the state has not developed and approved enough group homes for all those who need placement, the lawsuit claims.

That number includes at least 2,000 adults in Western New York who are eligible to be placed in group homes, Buffalo attorney Bruce A. Goldstein said. Many of these adults and their aging caregivers have been waiting for years, according to Goldstein, a long-time advocate for people with disabilities.

“Many of these caregivers are aging mothers and fathers who worry about what is going to happen to their sons or daughters after they die,” said Goldstein, special counsel with Kenney, Shelton, Liptak, Nowak LLP. “These caregivers would like to see their sons and daughters placed in good, stable situations while they are still alive.”

The lawsuit was filed in Buffalo’s federal court, naming Cuomo and another state official, Kerry Delaney, as defendants. Delaney is the acting commissioner of the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

In February, Delaney’s office issued a report on the issue to state lawmakers, saying it is aware of the concerns and is working on the problem.

Individuals and families “have expressed concern over how long they will need to wait for a residential service and what options will be available to them,” the state office said in the report. The state “is committed to expanding access to home and community-based services, and offer more choice and options.”

In the same report, Delaney’s office said New York spends more money than any state in the nation on “residential services and community supportive services” for people with developmental disabilities. The report said the state provides support to more than 130,000 individuals with developmental disabilities, including 38,000 in state-certified group homes.

But that is not enough, said Goldstein, who filed the lawsuit in behalf of five local families but hopes it will help families in similar situations throughout the state.

The lawsuit alleges that Cuomo and Delaney have violated their obligations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires the state to provide sufficient appropriate community residential facilities for the plaintiffs.

According to the lawsuit, many adults with disabilities are only placed in group homes after their parents die or become too ill to take care of them, which is disruptive and upsetting to the disabled individual who has just lost his or her parents.

“The state knows that the vast majority of these people – the aging caregivers – will not abandon their adult sons and daughters,” Goldstein said. “The state seems to have a strategy of addressing these needs only after there is a crisis situation. I think it’s a very cynical and unfair way to address the needs of people with developmental disabilities.”

While the lawsuit is based on the complaints of five families, who are only identified by their initials in court papers, Goldstein hopes a federal judge will certify the case as a “class action” on behalf of more than 2,000 Western New Yorkers in similar situations. If that happens, Goldstein said, the lawsuit could wind up changing conditions all over the state.

While the state does not build or operate group homes, the state authorizes and oversees the homes. Organizations that operate the homes cannot open new ones without state approval, Goldstein said.

The plaintiffs are “looking for the state to authorize and regulate more residential openings. Depending on the particular individual’s abilities and needs, he or she may need what’s commonly known as a group home, a supported apartment or another appropriate residential configuration,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein said that, to his knowledge, this is the first time this issue has been addressed in a federal class-action lawsuit in this state.

On Wednesday, the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities responded to news about the lawsuit. Officials said it “takes the needs of those in our system who require residential services and are living with aging caregivers very seriously. We have taken a number of steps to address this issue, including immediate steps to expand residential, day and respite options for those living at home. In addition, OPWDD is currently in the process of developing a five-year housing plan in concert with stakeholders to create new residential opportunities to meet the needs of those living at home with aging caregivers. OPWDD has not yet been served with this lawsuit and will review it thoroughly upon receipt of the plaintiffs’ complaint. Without such a review we cannot comment.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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