September 20, 2018
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Maine’s disability services are built on good faith — which is missing from LePage administration

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Republican Convention, Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.

When a federal judge in 2010 determined that Maine no longer needed a court’s oversight to ensure that adults with intellectual disabilities and autism would receive the state-funded services to which the law entitled them, one worry was that the state would backslide on its commitment to residents with disabilities.

But Judge George Z. Singal determined that the state had met its legal commitment and built up a system of services to allow adults with intellectual disabilities to live in their communities, rather than behind institutional walls.

He cited the relevant state laws and regulations in effect as one mechanism to keep the state from falling short of its commitment. He also cited the role of advocacy and oversight organizations in holding the state to account, and preventing the return to the dark days when adults with disabilities were housed — and mistreated — at the state-run Pineland Center in New Gloucester.

Maine law tasks the Maine Developmental Services Oversight and Advisory Board, which grew out of the former Consumer Advisory Board, with independent monitoring of the state’s system of serving adults with intellectual disabilities. As one of the key tools available to prevent the state from backsliding on its commitment to residents with disabilities, the board occupies a crucial role in the state’s far-reaching system.

But the board has been increasingly sidelined in recent years, limiting its ability to fulfill its crucial role.

While state law entitles the board to whatever data about the developmental services system that it needs to fulfill its oversight obligations, the state Department of Health and Human Services has shared little data with the panel since 2016. Relations between the department and the oversight board have become fraught. And Gov. Paul LePage hasn’t appointed members to the board since January 2016.

While the board should have 15 members under its governing statute, it’s now down to five. The board has done its part and sent nominations to the governor, but LePage has either ignored those nominations or declined to appoint the nominees while offering no explanations for his decisions.

LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz told the BDN the governor is under no obligation to appoint members, and he’s especially under no obligation to appoint members with whom he disagrees.

However, the state — and by extension, LePage and his administration — is obligated to ensure that adults with intellectual disabilities can receive services in their communities. And the state is obligated to ensure that those tasked with making sure the state is doing its job can do their job as well.

The state is backsliding on both counts.

“[T]he fear that history may repeat itself will always be present, and will require that the class members and those that advocate on their behalf to be forever vigilant,” Singal wrote in his 2010 decision releasing the state from court oversight over its developmental services system.

Those advocates and overseers are trying to be vigilant. But LePage’s failure to appoint members to the developmental services oversight board, and his administration’s failure to make basic information about the system available to the board — and to anyone else, for that matter — complicate that task. The lack of members and the lack of information make it difficult to know exactly what is going wrong with the system and what needs to be fixed.

The reality that a few years of neglect and a few years of disrespect for the law can start to undo years of progress toward developing a system of services for adults with intellectual disabilities highlights the extent to which the system and the mechanisms put in place to keep it intact are built on good faith. A lack of good faith is all it takes for the backsliding to happen in earnest.

If Maine’s failures to fulfill its obligations to some of its most vulnerable residents end up back in court, a judge would do well to ensure that a lack of good faith can’t undo future efforts to rebuild state services.

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