Judge approves settlement over restraint devices

Published 12:36 pm Friday, December 2, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge has approved a $2.9 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit that was filed to end the use of handcuffs and leg irons in state facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

The ruling issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank permanently closes the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options program in Cambridge, where residents were routinely handcuffed, place in leg irons and locked alone in rooms for infractions as minor as bumping into someone or touching a pizza box without permission.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Friday (http://bit.ly/vanxng ) that the restraint procedures were revealed in a 2008 report by the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. Frank said the settlement would help people with disabilities “enjoy the promise of the Constitution, the promise of America.”

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Some former residents of state facilities recounted to Frank in a courtroom hearing their suffering at such practices. Heidi Myhre of West St. Paul, who suffers from cerebral palsy, hearing and vision impairments, dyslexia and other conditions, recounted a 1988 stay at Anoka State Hospital. There, she said, she was forcibly stripped to her underwear and locked in a room after she argued with someone over a television.

“I though the state hospital was supposed to help me, not abuse me,” Myrhe said.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services had denied allegations of mistreatment in court filings, but Assistant Attorney General Steven Albert — who represented the agency — worked with plaintiffs’ lawyers to settle the case and called the resolution important. “It will make a huge difference to a lot of people,” Albert said.

After attorneys are paid, plaintiffs will split $1.9 million. Three named plaintiffs will receive $75,000 each, and the rest will get money based on the amount of documented abuse they suffered.

The lead plaintiffs were parents of three men who’d been in the extended Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) program at the state hospital in Cambridge, about 45 miles north of the Twin Cities. Their suit claimed that “as a means of behavior modification, coercion, discipline, convenience and retaliation, METO staff restrained plaintiffs using law enforcement-type metal handcuffs and leg hobbles for conduct as benign as spitting, laughing or hand-washing.”

Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, began investigating the program in 2007 after getting two complaints initially seen as minor. But that blossomed into an 18-month investigation which ultimately found six of every 10 residents in the program had been restrained or locked away alone.

“One of the most egregious of the cases revealed a client who had been restrained 299 times in 2006 and 230 times in 2007,” the ombudsman’s report said. It found that use of restraints, once considered a last resort, shifted over time to something program staffers relied upon.

Attorney Shamus O’Meara, who represented the plaintiffs, said the settlement would benefit many state residents “because it closes METO and bars the use of certain restraint devices and techniques at the state’s other facilities.”

Some restraint techniques will still be allowed, but their use will be limited, monitored and reviewed. Employees at state facilities will also be trained in alternatives to using restraints.