Friday, April 09, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Don’t close youth center

We will all have to wait until a trial this fall to figure out if the Conway Human Development Center is seriously negligent in the way that it houses and treats people who are left in its custody, and that may not be conclusive. But U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes was as right as he could be this week in refusing to immediately halt admissions to the colony based upon the as-yet unproven allegations of the U. S. Justice Department that residents there are in mortal danger.

The Justice Department for more than a decade — under three administrations — has been on a mission to reform the Conway center, which was once known as the Arkansas Children’s Colony when it was the first state institution to care for the developmentally disabled.

We are sure that the Justice Department lawyers are sincere in their belief that the program at Conway, which serves more than 500 severely disabled residents, is backward, needlessly harsh and often cruelly negligent. The Justice Department is sworn to implement the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires that developmentally disabled people be treated in the least restrictive environment — in other words, in a way that leaves them maximum personal freedom.

Gov. Mike Beebe and the state Human Services Department say that the Justice Department wants to close the Human Development Center and put everyone in community settings, and they say that philosophy is misguided and would produce the very cruelty that the federal lawyers say is endemic to the large institutions. The anecdotal evidence has been that families of the Conway center’s residents side rabidly with the governor and the administration of the center, not with the Justice Department and its experts.

Since instituting the action in federal court against the Human Development Center years ago, the Justice Department has filed some disturbing reports on abuse and negligence at the center, much of it involving mechanical restraints on residents and improper medication, and worrisome statistics on how the Conway center and the other Arkansas programs stack up against other states.

The trial in September will come none too early for the judge, the government and all of us to evaluate the truth of the allegations. The feelings of family members who have loved ones at the institution are to us a testament at least as convincing as the Justice Department’s studies.

Judge Holmes had to decide whether the prospects of cruelty were greater by allowing people to continue to admit loved ones to the center for the next five months or by denying them. The center has a long waiting list of families who want to place youngsters in the center’s care. We admire his judiciousness, his judicial restraint.

If the danger to residents from carelessness, outmoded treatment and unduly harsh restraints is so great, the judge wondered, why did the Justice Department waited for years, until five months before the case was scheduled for trial, to suddenly allege that the dangers were so high that the public interest demanded that no one else needing care should be admitted? It simply did not meet the standard of proof to justify the court interfering with a program for which there is a huge demand.

Our hunch is that the trial will produce evidence that the Conway center needs more enlightened and, yes, more humane, treatment of many of its charges. Everyone up to the governor has acknowledged that another nearby state facility for the disabled, at Alexander, is so slipshod that it must be removed from its present governance.

But the greater injustice, as Judge Holmes seems to have concluded, would be to deny many the care that their families so desperately crave until everything is fixed.