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VOL. 128 | NO. 238 | Friday, December 6, 2013

Arlington Developmental Center Court Case Ends After 21 Years

By Bill Dries

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The Federal Court lawsuit over conditions at the Arlington Developmental Center is over after 21 years.

U.S. District Court Judge Jon McCalla formally closed the case Wednesday, Dec. 4, by entering an order and final judgment in the court for the Western District of Tennessee.

McCalla’s court order comes two months after the state of Tennessee completed the negotiated exit plan for the case first filed in 1992 by the U.S. Department of Justice over conditions at the state-run center for the mentally and developmentally disabled.

The advocacy group People First of Tennessee joined the lawsuit.

The exit plan agreed to by all sides in January included enrolling some of those at the center in home and community-based services as well as nursing homes.

The original plan to close Arlington encountered resistance early on, because while some of the residents at the facility could be transferred elsewhere, some could only get the level of care they required at Arlington under earlier terms of the settlement.

The exit plan the state completed earlier this year also included demolishing residential cottages on the campus.

In the interim, the state has also developed more extensive protection programs for the developmentally disabled at all of its facilities now under the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

“In Tennessee, we are committed to taking care of our most vulnerable citizens,” Haslam said in a written statement.

How to do that and where the state’s role ended and the federal government’s role began were the flashpoints between the state and the court and federal officials in the Justice Department for a good part of the 21 year span of the court case.

Through the administrations of the last four governors of the state, starting with Ned McWherter in 1992, the court case has been the setting for the long-running debate including conditions at such state institutions and how and when the state would meet the court-ordered conditions.

In 1996, the state Finance Commission Bob Corker who is now a U.S. Senator took personal charge of the patient care issues at Arlington during the administration of Gov. Don Sundquist.

Sundquist removed Arlington from what was then the state Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, making its administration a task of his cabinet.

The Sundquist administration battled in court over the difficulty of transitioning some of the most profoundly disabled residents at Arlington who had lived there most of their lives to life outside the institution.

A 1996 audit that was part of the court order found the center had not complied with a dozen of the 25 provisions to improve care and McCalla accused the state of defying the court order. By then McCalla has already considered ordering the center closed. Tentative dates for such a closure were set and deadlines missed.

In late 1995, McCalla ordered Tennessee Mental Health Commissioner Marjorie Nelle Cardwell to spend one weekend a month at Arlington. A federal appeals court stayed the order.

In the interim, court appointed consultants reported that 14 residents of Arlington had died in a year’s time. The beating death of another resident prompted a federal civil rights case that ended with convictions of several employees at Arlington in a Memphis federal court case.

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