U.S. attorney for Kansas issues warning at disability conference
A federal official on Thursday said that a report currently being finalized will show that Kansas isn’t fully complying with the law that protects the rights of disabled people.
Barry Grissom, the U.S. Attorney for Kansas, said how the state responds to the soon-to-be issued report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will determine whether it can avoid a federal lawsuit.
Grissom said the best outcome would be for federal and state officials to agree on a plan for bringing the state into full compliance with the law.
“We always want to work with our partners at the state level,” he said in an interview with the KHI News Service. “That always is the best way, the most cost effective way. And I think you get the best results when you do it that way.”
But if that doesn’t happen, he said, “The Department of Justice would have to review the findings of HHS and make a determination as to whether there’s going to be a lawsuit.”
Grissom was the luncheon speaker at the 12th Annual Kansas Disability Caucus at the Capitol Plaza Hotel and Convention Center in Topeka.
Grissom assured the audience of 200-plus people that both his office and the U.S. Department of Justice are “committed to aggressive enforcement of the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead,” a reference to a landmark case in which the court ruled that states are obliged to provide services for disabled persons in settings that are most appropriate to their needs.
“In that decision,” he said. “The court ruled that people with disabilities have a right to live in communities and not be locked away in an institution.”
Grissom said he was aware that more than 5,000 people with developmental and physical disabilities are on waiting lists administered by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
Advocates for the disabled have long argued that the waiting lists constitute a violation of the Olmstead ruling.
Many in the audience encouraged Grissom to announce his office’s intent to file a lawsuit, challenging the waiting lists. He declined to do so.
“There are a lot of expectations in this room right now,” he said. “I cannot make any promises to you today. I can’t tell you everything I know today. But I will tell you this: As long as I have the great honor and great privilege to be serving as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas, the disability rights community has no bigger friend.”
Stephanie Stanford, a coordinator with the Kansas Association of Centers for Independent Living, was seated next to Grissom.
“I don’t have to watch what I say,” Stanford said, noting that Kansas legislators and policymakers have not supported efforts to create a state plan for complying with the Olmstead ruling and eliminating the waiting lists.
Stanford said that in response to an open records request, KACIL had received a letter from SRS (PDF), indicating that it did not have a plan for complying with the Olmstead ruling and that such a plan was not mandatory.
“I didn’t go to law school, and I’m not an attorney,” she said, “But if that’s not a smoking gun, I don’t know what is.”
Stanford later provided KHI News Service with a copy of the June 23 letter.
Earlier, Grissom said that while states are not required to have Olmstead plans, those that do not will a hard time defending their policies – waiting lists, for example — in court.
Grissom said he was aware that Kansas does not have an Olmstead plan. “Before a state begins to defend itself — that should be in place,” he said. “Having an Olmstead plan is the first step.”
Grissom shared that his office and HHS have investigated several complaints of Olmstead violations in Kansas.
Shari Coatney, executive director with the Southeast Kansas Independent Living Resource Center in Parsons, said her agency has filed more than 200 complaints with the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“The issues that were discussed here today aren’t new,” Coatney said. “What is new is that now it looks like the federal government will be providing some motivation for the state to do something.”
—Jim McLean contributed to this story.