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State needs many more group homes for people with intellectual disabilities

New York State just got extra incentive to do the right thing for residents with intellectual disabilities. Five Western New York families have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the state of failing to meet its obligations to provide a sufficient number of group homes to serve the state’s population with conditions such as Down syndrome and autism.

The state needs to act on this issue rather than spend millions defending the lawsuit. Negotiate a settlement and get moving.

It is at least a little reassuring that the state recognizes a problem. In February, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities issued a report on the matter to the State Legislature. The report acknowledged the concerns and said it is working on them. The state, it said, “is committed to expanding access to home- and community-based services, and offer more choice and options.”

That’s a start, but the fundamental questions are whether the state is doing all it reasonably can to serve the basic needs of New Yorkers with developmental disabilities.

The lawsuit alleges that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Kerry Delaney, acting commissioner of the OPDD, have violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires the state to provide sufficient appropriate community residential facilities. They hope to have the lawsuit certified as a class action representing more than 2,000 Western New Yorkers in similar circumstances. If so, it stands to improve conditions across the state.

Some of these families are approaching crisis. As parents age, they worry that their children will eventually be left without the care that their disabilities require, said Buffalo attorney Bruce A. Goldstein, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities. “These caregivers would like to see their sons and daughters placed in good, stable situations while they are still alive.”

But what happens too often, the lawsuit claims, is that individuals needing these services are denied a place until their parents die or become too ill to care for them. To move a person at that moment of crisis is both disruptive and upsetting.

“The state knows that the vast majority of these people – the aging caregivers – will not abandon their adult sons and daughters,” Goldstein said. “I think it’s a very cynical and unfair way to address the needs of people with developmental disabilities.” If that’s the state’s approach, then Goldstein is completely and obviously right. Either way, New York needs to do better.

The state does not build or operate such facilities, but it does authorize and regulate them. The plaintiffs’ demand is that the state do that.

Part of the problem in siting these homes is the opposition of many in the neighborhoods where they could be located. It’s a common not-in-my-backyard response, but out of keeping with the nature of these facilities and the kind of neighborliness that Western New Yorkers profess to be theirs.

That probably won’t change, but what can be different going forward is the level of the state’s commitment to authorizing more places for New Yorkers who need that kind of care before those people suffer the inevitable loss of their parents.

If the lawsuit helps to speed that along, it will have accomplished something positive.

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