AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

The war between the state — and the feds

With lawmakers talking about protecting Confederate symbols and extolling the supposedly good points of the Ku Klux Klan, it can be easy to forget that the Civil War ended 151 years ago. After all, Georgia still keeps cannons on its Capitol steps – pointed North, as if our leaders expect renewed Union aggression.

As it happens, Georgia is engaged in two serious conflicts with the federal government. In both, state officials, led by Gov. Nathan Deal, are resisting intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice in how Georgia serves some of its most vulnerable citizens.

The first concerns the care of people with developmental disabilities. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported over the weekend, the Justice Department says Georgia is not living up to promises it made in 2010 to settle a federal investigation into the state’s psychiatric hospitals. Part of the settlement required the state to transfer people with physical disabilities from the state hospitals – where, in most cases, they never belonged – to group homes and other community-based facilities. (To see the original Journal-Constitution stories that precipitated the federal investigation, go here.)

The state has moved about 500 patients. But 79 of them have died – some, federal authorities say, because of the state’s lax oversight of their new homes. (Read the entire story here.)

The Justice Department and the state have tried for months to settle their differences, to no avail. Now the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to hold the state in contempt of court and to order new measures to protect the former hospital patients.

The state’s lawyers are putting up a strong fight. They say the 2010 settlement never required Georgia to provide quality homes for disabled people – just to move them out of the state hospitals. They complain that the Justice Department has “lobbed” incendiary accusations against state officials and that the federal government is engaging in “social policymaking.”

They may as well have described the federal officials as Yankee scoundrels.

Meanwhile, other lawyers representing the state are fighting the Justice Department on another front. This battle concerns Georgia’s unique network of “psychoeducation” schools for children with behavioral disorders and other conditions, such as autism. Each year, about 5,000 students are sent to the psycho-ed centers, now formally known as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.

The Justice Department said last summer that Georgia illegally segregates these children, often in schools that are dirty, in poor repair and, in some cases, served as blacks-only facilities before court-ordered integration. The way Georgia treats these children, federal authorities alleged, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Justice Department is demanding that Georgia remove children from psycho-ed schools and give them mental health and behavioral services in regular-education classrooms.

Georgia officials aren’t taking kindly to this federal incursion, either.

The Justice Department asked for a response 10 days after its letter to the state last July. But it took months before the state hired a lawyer to handle the case. Negotiations reportedly have begun, but by all accounts, no settlement is in sight. (Of course, the people actually engaged in negotiations aren’t commenting.)

The Justice Department has said that, unless a settlement is reached, it will sue the state, which could result in court orders to spend millions of dollars or even the appointment of an outside entity to oversee the dismantling of the psycho-ed programs.

The governor might want to check on those cannons. The Yankees are coming.


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