CHICAGO – A federal judge began hearing arguments and testimony Tuesday in a lawsuit over whether the state can close its Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia.
U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen has set aside 3 days for hearing the case in the Dirksen federal building in Chicago.
In her opening statement, plaintiff attorney Judy Sherwin said the lawsuit isn’t just about Murray Center, because the case will “determine for many years to come” how Illinois cares for people who have developmental disabilities.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ioppolo, in his opening, said most states are moving away from institutionalization of people with developmental disabilities. He said it’s the state’s prerogative on whether or not to close one of its institutions, and it’s the state’s prerogative on whether to operate 15, 10 or five institutions.
“This is a state decision. It’s a state judgment. It’s not really one the federal courts will interfere with,” Ioppolo told the judge.
Aspen opened the proceedings by warning the lawyers to stick “to the issues” and not to play to the audience. “If anything, it’s going to antagonize me,” he said.
Under a format set by the judge, the attorneys are cross-examining witnesses who already have submitted written affidavits. The first witness called to the stand by the state was Rita Winkeler, who is president of the Murray Parent Association and has an adult son residing at the center. Ioppolo questioned her at length about her claims that state Department of Human Services officials have been indifferent to her son’s residential needs and are “forcing” him into a group home.
Ioppolo asked Winkeler if she’s being a good parent when she refuses to even participate in a state process that assesses Murray residents, to help determine what type of residential setting would be best for Murray residents.
“Absolutely,” Winkeler replied, adding that she didn’t want her son to “go through this flawed process.” Ioppolo countered that it’s only an assessment, not a final decision on placement.
Ioppolo also questioned Winkeler about donations the parent group has received from Murray union workers for legal expenses, including one check for $30,000.
About 20 supporters of Murray Center are on hand, after being forced by weather conditions to juggle travel arrangements. Some had planned to travel by rail, but weather conditions canceled their trains and forced them to make the drive.
HOW WE GOT HERE
In February 2012, Gov. Pat Quinn announced a budget plan that called for the closing of the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia.
The state, which already has closed its similar institution in Jacksonville, says adults with developmental disabilities have a better quality of life when they’re placed into privately-run group homes. The group homes are publicly funded but are much less expensive, meaning Illinois can spread its limited resources among a greater number of people needing services, according to the state.
Opponents of the closure, led by the Murray Parents Association, filed a suit in federal court in Chicago. They say some of Murray Center’s residents have severe disabilities that can only be handled in an institution, and they dispute the state’s contention that community-based care would save the state more than $100,000 per year, per resident.
The plaintiffs argue that the rights of people with developmental disabilities would be violated if the state closes Murray Center and its other institutions because the people would have limited options on where they reside.
The state says it does not plan to close all seven of its institutions.
The plaintiffs are asking the court for an order prohibiting the closure of any state-operated institutions “unless or until equivalent, appropriate replacement services are provided to prevent inappropriate hospitalization, injury or death to residents in violation of the developmentally disabled residents’ rights under federal and state laws.”
It will likely be several days, possibly even weeks, before Judge Marvin Aspen issues a ruling.
At the moment, the plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction. The next step would be to seek a ruling on a request for a permanent injunction.
ABOUT MURRAY CENTER:
Murray Center currently has about 225 residents. It used to have about 270, but some have already moved.
The center has about 530 employees. The state says the cost to operate the center was $39 million in 2013.
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