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Take the Olmstead Pledge: A Time to Seize Justice

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According to Facebook Chief Operating Officer and author Sheryl Sandberg, "Social gains are never handed out they must be seized." Recently, I was invited to speak at a faith-based community behavioral health luncheon. I spoke about therapeutic justice, ending the criminalization of people with mental illness, and the role of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Olmstead v. L.C.

The meeting room was filled with a diverse and highly dedicated group of mental health and substance use treatment providers, law enforcement officers, and mental health advocates. As I held up a copy of the Department of Justice Statement on Enforcement of the Integration Mandate of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Olmstead, I asked those familiar with the ADA integration mandate or Olmstead decision to raise their hands? I was not surprised when no hands went up.

At the end of my presentation the entire group joined with me to take a pledge to advance the Department of Justice enforcement guidelines of Olmstead and the ADA integration mandate, Title II within their organizations and the community.

The Olmstead Decision

In 1995, a lawsuit was filed by The Atlanta Legal Aid Society on behalf of Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson based upon a violation of the integration mandate of the ADA, Title II. The women had been voluntarily admitted to a Georgia State Hospital, respectively diagnosed with mental illness and developmental disability. Each was hospitalized over two decades with intermittent discharges to inappropriate settings. Upon discharge, both women remained confined for several years due to the lack of availability of supportive community based programs.

On June 22, 1999 the U.S., Supreme Court affirmed the right of people with disabilities to live in their community. Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, "The integration mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public agencies to provide services in the most integrated setting appropriate for needs of the of qualified individuals with disabilities."

The Department of Justice Enforcement Guidelines

In 2009, in accordance with President Obama's launch of the Year of Community Living to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision of Olmstead v. L.C., the Department of Justice published technical assistance guidelines. The Statement on Enforcement of the Integration Mandate of Title II of the ADA and Olmstead v. L.C. is an essential document which every community and state-wide criminal justice and mental health organization, work group, coalition and task force must study and apply. This Department of Justice guide instructs on a variety of commonly asked questions. It addresses the legal basis for compliance for public agencies and system care planning, financing and implementation.

The integration mandate of Title II, is the law. The law without action is not enough. As the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law declared in its report, "It is time to take Olmstead out of the courtroom and into the community." It seems, even when legal rights are handed down, social stigma and discrimination entails cultural change and a collective pledge to seize justice.