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Proposal to Close Advocacy Office Within DHHS Draws Opposition
03/29/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Advocates for people with intellectual disabilities in Maine are troubled by the increasing number of names being added to the waiting list for state services. What two years ago was a list of about 300 names is now close to a thousand. At the same time the LePage Administration is proposing to close the state Office of Advocacy in the Department of Health and Human Services and contract with the Disability Rights Center to pick up the work.

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The plan would result in a loss of 2.5 positions and, some say, not result in any savings.

The plan to close the Office of Advocacy and shift responsibilities to the Disability Rights Center is part of a larger effort to reorganize DHHS. The job of the Office of Advocacy is to be a voice for the intellectually disabled, those with IQs of less than 70 and for people with autism. It was originally created by statute about 30 years ago after a scandal and class action lawsuit involving patients at the former Augusta Mental Health Institute. Chief Advocate Richard Estabrook oversees 7.5 positions, a number established by a court-appointed Special Master. Five of them, including himself, are attorneys.

"We do go to court at times but it's relatively rare. Most of our legal work is administrative and we do file grievances and we pursue grievances on behalf of people and we try to seek redress for them in those arenas," said Estabrook.

Redress for violations of their legal rights, access to crisis and other services and for substandard living conditions for example. But with a waiting list of several hundred...Estabrook fears that clients are being shortchanged. Many of them are essentially living in exile at home.

"It is a right to receive habilitation services under state law and we are, in effect, institutionalizing people in the community because we are not giving them the services that they should be receiving," he said.

On top of that Estabrook says about two weeks ago he and his staff learned they would be laid off in August under a planned reorganization of DHHS. Instead the work they do would be picked up by the well-respected Disability Rights Center which six years ago took over responsibility from the state for serving people with mental illness. Ricker Hamilton, acting director for the Office of Adults With Physical and Cognitive Disabilities says the proposal makes sense for a couple of reasons.

"Having state employees be advocates and often be taking grievances or actions against the Department, there seems to be just a conflict of interest and I think if other offices have moved out and gone to the Disability Rights Center it seems to make sense now as well," said Hamilton.

Though his own job is on the line, Estabrook can't see why it's in the state's or the clients' interest. He points out that the state receives a 45% reimbursement from the federal government for the Office of Advocacy. Once the Office is dissolved the state won't get an extra 270,000 dollars. And the Disability Rights Center will only be given enough money to fund five positions instead of 7.5. In addition, the Center will be in the position of negotiating a contract with the state on a regular basis at a time when budgets are tight and often uncertain.

"I don't need 7.5 - it's too many," said Kim Moody, executive director of the Disability Rights Center, an independent non-profit agency that works for the protection and advocacy of the disabled. DRC is funded by private and federal grants.

"Five people can do this job very effectively, plus, those five people will be joining our developmental disabilities team," said Moody.

Moody said she hopes to hire some of the advocates who will be losing their jobs. She says the idea of abolishing the Office of Advocay and her having her agency take over the work is not new, it's been brought up for discussion several times over the past 12 years.

"It has been around for a very long time. It's been considered multiple times. I think the question is why wasn't it adopted so many of those other times," asked Gerald Petruccelli. He was the lead attorney for more than 700 plaintiffs involved in a class action lawsuit against the state over services for the mentally disabled who lived at the Pineland Hospital until the mid-90s.

Petruccelli said he has a high regard for the Disability Rights Center, which has brought its own class action suits against the state. He says needs the state needs both agencies, that now is not the time to do away with Office of Advocacy.

"The intensiveness and extensiveness of advocacy services to the people I represented in the Community Class decree will necessarily be reduced at a time when budgets are being attacked from all sides and the services to that population are going to be under greater attack and advocacy is going to be more needed," he said.

Unlike the Office of Advocacy, said Petruccelli, the DRC doesn't have the same statutory protection. As for the court-appointed Special Master, attorney Clarence Sundram of New York, he said he understands why it might be more efficient to combine the two agencies. But as the person who set the number of advocates at 7.5 he worries about reducing services for clients.

"If at the end of the day there are going to be fewer advocates, that would be a matter of concern because, as I said, it's not a rich resource to begin with," said Sundram.

The proposal to eliminate the Office of Advocacy has been endorsed by a majority of the Health and Human Services Committee. It now goes to the full Legislature for consideration.

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