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Lawsuit settled over treatment of disabled residents in state-run institution

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Bradley Jensen
Bradley Jensen, one of the original plaintiffs in Jensen v. Minnesota Department of Human Services, a lawsuit that was settled Dec. 1, 2011 on behalf of 300 disabled Minnesotans who were subjected to restraints and seclusion in a state-run institution in Cambridge, Minn. that is now closed.
Photo courtesy of Lorie Jensen

A federal judge gave final approval Thursday to a settlement reached between the State of Minnesota and 300 developmentally disabled former residents of a state-run institution. 

Jensen v. Minnesota Department of Human Services, heard by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul, Minn., alleged that Minnesota Extended Treatment Options, a facility in Cambridge, frequently subjected patients with developmental disabilities to "improper and inhumane use of seclusion and mechanical restraints." METO closed in June of this year.

Family members of three patients first raised concerns in 2007. The state ombudsman launched a year-long investigation that found "People were being routinely restrained in a prone face down position and placed in metal handcuffs and leg hobbles." 

Lorie Jensen of Little Canada is the mother of Bradley Jensen, the lead plaintiff in the case. In 2007, her autistic son was committed to META when he was 18. Jensen became worried when she noticed marks and bruises around her son's wrists. She struggled to understand what was happening, and found METO staff evasive, then combative.

"When it was revealed to me the horror of what they were doing to him, I was the first one to report," Jensen said. She then went to The Arc of Minnesota which advocates on behalf of people with disabilities. The Arc's Brad Hansen told the courtroom today that Bradley Jensen was restrained 251 times. He now lives in a group home in Maple Grove.

Bradley's mother says he is still traumatized.

"His trust is not really there anymore," she said.

Jensen is pleased the settlement will prevent future abuses like those her son endured. The settlement includes not only compensation for victims, but a far-ranging plan to improve the treatment of disabled people in the state.

"It's an extraordinary agreement that we believe is unprecedented in Minnesota," said Shamus O'Meara, lead attorney for the class action plaintiffs. "It will benefit not only the class members — the several hundred class members with developmental disabilities — but also the nearly 100,000 citizens with developmental disabilities and their families."

The settlement mandates training for DHS staff with an emphasis on positive behavioral support and requires regular reporting over the next two years.

"The department is prohibited from the use of restraints except in emergency circumstances," said DHS deputy commissioner Anne Barry in an interview. The only restraints now allowed are made of Velcro and only in the case of an emergency.

The settlement has a long-term goal to institutionalize fewer people. The 1999 U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead ruling found that institutionalizing a person with a disability who, with proper support, could live in the community is discrimination. The settlement calls for the creation of an Olmstead Plan to hasten Minnesota's compliance in caring for people in the least-restrictive environments. A Rule 40 committee will determine best practices for those committed to institutions.