Deinstitutionalization Nationwide

For decades throughout the country, people with developmental disabilities were segregated from the community in massive state-run warehouses, where they often suffered physical and mental abuse, total neglect, and isolation from friends, family, and society in general. Even children were sent to state institutions, excluded from public schools.

Institutions did nothing to help people with disabilities – indeed, most regressed in basic life skills in confinement. Instead, the system indulged an ugly and irrational prejudice against people with disabilities – a belief, in the words of the Supreme Court, that people with developmental disabilities are “incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.”

Starting in the 1970s, the Law Center’s landmark deinstitutionalization lawsuit Halderman v. Pennhurst helped spark a nationwide movement to implement strong community-based services in place of these dangerous and discriminatory institutions. As a result, the population of large state-run institutions has reduced dramatically, from around 200,000 in 1967 to below 40,000 in 2008. In place of those institutions, smaller settings and systems to support community living have been built across the country.

Every step of the way, the Law Center has played a central role in the movement – closing large institutions, building community living arrangements, and securing funding to make community placements possible. Since Pennhurst, we have participated in lawsuits across the country, including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Illinois, Tennessee, Connecticut, Montana, and Delaware, all detailed below.

We have also filed influential amicus briefs in numerous deinstitutionalization cases, including some that have set far-reaching and important precedents for people with disabilities.


Homeward Bound v. Hissom Memorial Center (1989)

In 1985, we partnered with Homeward Bound, Inc., to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of 600 people with developmental disabilities confined in the Hissom Memorial Center in Oklahoma, the great majority of whom were children. In the institution, the plaintiff class suffered abuse and neglect, were often restrained through force or overmedication, and were denied basic services like medical care or an education. The lawsuit aimed to move residents out of Hissom and into community living arrangements with quality supports and services.

The Court acted quickly and in 1987 issued a Court Plan and Order of Deinstitutionalization. The plan describes its guiding principles:

  • All persons are capable of growth and development.
  • All persons deserve to be treated with dignity.
  • All persons have value.
  • All persons must be involved in and carry the primary responsibility for the decisions which affect their lives. […]
  • All children have the right to a free and appropriate education.
  • All persons should live in and be a part of the community.

The order gave the state four years to move its residents into the community, and it gave guidelines on which the system should be structured.

In 1989, the parties entered into a Consent Decree that outlined the procedure by which residents must be moved into the community and provided with needed supports. Monitoring and sporadic litigation continued through the 1990s, and in 2005 the court terminated the case. However, in doing so, the court found that the Consent Decree imposed a permanent obligation on the state to provide robust, individualized community services and support. The order also required the state to obtain waivers for anyone who required placement in an institution.

Case Documents

New Mexico

Jackson v. Fort Stanton Hospital & Training School (1992)

In partnership with the advocacy organization Supporters of Developmentally Disabled New Mexicans, we filed a lawsuit in 1987 seeking to close two large, state-run institutions in New Mexico housing 500 people with developmental disabilities. The institutions, Fort Stanton Hospital and Training School and Los Lunas Hospital and Training School, unnecessarily segregated their residents from the community in frequently dangerous conditions.

The lawsuit sought to replace the large institutions with a system of integrated, community-based living arrangements. A group of parents and guardians of a limited number of residents intervened in the lawsuits against us, opposed to mandatory transfers out of the institutions; instead, they sought improvements to the institutions.

Trial began in 1989, and the next year the Court issued a comprehensive Order finding that the state and the institutions had violated the rights of the residents. The order mandated that the parties to submit a plan to correct the numerous institutional deficiencies, and a plan to transfer each resident recommended for community placement out of the institutions.

By 1997, both of the institutions had closed, and the residents had been transferred into community-based living arrangements. We then filed a Joint Stipulation on Disengagement with the state and intervening parent group in order to monitor compliance with the court’s order.

Case Documents


Ligas v. Maram (2011)

For many years, Illinois remained one of the worst offenders in the fight to deinstitutionalize people with developmental disabilities, channeling them into a system of large institutions and resisting community placements and services – a large-scale violation of civil rights and the law. In 2005, we partnered with Equip for Equality and other advocacy groups to file Ligas v. Maram, a class action lawsuit challenging Illinois’ antiquated institutional system and seeking community living arrangements for residents.

In 2008, the plaintiffs reached a tentative agreement with Illinois officials to give residents (or potential residents) the choice to receive services in community settings. However, some family members of institution residents filed objections to the proposed agreement, worried that it would force them out of their care facilities. The Court then rejected the settlement and decertified the class.

In January of 2011, a settlement was reached to expand community living options for people with disabilities throughout Illinois. The agreement will allow people with disabilities currently living in care facilities to move out into community living arrangements with needed supports. The agreement also allows residents to stay in care facilities if they wish, and it requires that the approximately 3,000 people with disabilities currently living in the community be provided with community services not being provided.

Case Documents


People First v. Arlington Developmental Center (1997) and U.S. v. Tennessee (2005)

In 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began an investigation of the Arlington Developmental Center, a state-run institution for people with developmental disabilities in Tennessee. DOJ found the conditions in Arlington were dangerous: residents suffered abuse, neglect, inadequate medical care, and a general lack of services. The following year, the Law Center partnered with People First of Tennessee to bring People First v. Arlington, a class action alleging that Arlington’s inhumane conditions violated the rights of its residents. In 1992, DOJ filed a similar lawsuit.

Following the filing of DOJ’s lawsuit, the court dismissed the claims in People First covered by the DOJ lawsuit, essentially leaving only a charge that Arlington had prevented residents from associating with disability rights advocates, a serious violation of their First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, U.S. v. Tennessee proceeded to trial, and in 1993 the court issued a ruling against Arlington, finding that the conditions violated the rights of its residents. The court soon after issued an order compelling the defendants to fix Arlington’s dangerous conditions. In 1995 we were named intervenors in the U.S. case to represent the residents in the continuing proceedings.

In People First, the court adopted the findings from the DOJ case and certified a class of all Arlington residents. The defendants then quickly agreed to settle in 1996, acknowledging violations of residents’ First Amendment rights and agreeing to change their policies and practices to allow for full freedom of speech and association.

Litigation in U.S. v. Tennessee continued intermittently for another decade, as People First and DOJ worked to force Arlington into compliance with the law. Ultimately, the state decided to close the failing institution in 2007.

Case Documents

People First v. Clover Bottom Developmental Center (1996)

In 1995, we partnered again with People First of Tennessee in a lawsuit against Tennessee on behalf of residents the state’s remaining institutions for people with developmental disabilities. The lawsuit built on a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the facilities in 1994, which found patterns of abuse and neglect, as well as a failure to educate school-age children in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

DOJ filed a lawsuit in the same court soon after, and the two lawsuits were consolidated.

We quickly secured a favorable settlement agreement, which was approved in November of 1996. In the settlement, the state agreed to individually evaluate all citizens with developmental disabilities to determine their need for services, to develop community living arrangements with appropriate services, to improve living conditions in state institutions, and to provide education for all children with disabilities.



Messier v. Southbury Training School (2010)

In 1994, we brought Messier on behalf of a class of 700 Southbury residents and three advocacy organizations – the Arc of Connecticut, Western Connecticut Association for Human Rights (WeCAHR), and People First – arguing that Southbury had violated the residents’ rights by failing to move them into the community. Southbury had long been under court order to fix its horrific conditions, and the lawsuit also asked the court to finally force the defendants to improve the dangerous institution.

Messier was tried for over 100 days in 1999. In 2008, the court ruled in the Law Center’s favor, establishing that the state violated residents’ rights by failing to provide residents who wanted to leave the institution with community placements.

Two years after the decision – sixteen after the case was first filed – Messier settled favorably for the remaining residents. The settlement provided for an independent expert to train the Southbury staff and the residents’ families about available community services, and it requires the state to create new processes to help residents and their families choose between possible living arrangements, based on full knowledge of the available options as well as individualized data about the resident’s needs.

Case Documents


  • Travis D. v. Eastmont (1996)

In Montana in 1996, over 1,300 people with disabilities were stuck on waiting lists for community services the state is obligated to provide, at risk of involuntary and unnecessary incarceration in a state institution if anything were to happen to their guardians. Another 175 people were segregated in Montana’s large institutions, often against their will.

In August of1996, the Law Center joined with the Montana Advocacy Program to file a class action lawsuit challenging the treatment of people with developmental disabilities denied community-base living arrangements, either segregated in state-run institutions or languishing on waiting lists. After initial litigation, the proceedings were put on hold pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Olmstead vs. L.C., which was decided in 1999 and established the right of people with mental disabilities to live in the community.

In 2003, we entered court-ordered mediation, and we reached a settlement in 2004 to increase community placements as well as state funding to provide people with disabilities living in the community with needed supports and services.



Arc v. Meconi (2002)

In 2002, over 1,100 people with developmental disabilities in Delaware languished on a waiting list to receive community-based services, even as available community housing went unused for lack of state funding. Hundreds of those people had already been on the waiting list for years. Meanwhile, the state agencies responsible funneled people instead into large, state-run institutions.

In 2002, the Law Center filed a lawsuit against Delaware officials to force the state to provide and fully fund community-based services, and to close the Stockley Center – a large, restrictive, and expensive institution that kept 200 people unnecessarily segregated from the community. We filed the class action lawsuit, Arc v. Meconi, on behalf of nine individuals with developmental disabilities and three advocacy organizations – the Arc of Delaware, People First of Delaware, and the Homes for Life Foundation. The lawsuit fought not only against institutionalization, but also for increased funding for community-based living arrangements in order to end Delaware’s practice of keeping its most vulnerable citizens without essential services for as they waited for a community placement.

The state quickly agreed to a settlement, which was approved in 2004. In the settlement, Delaware agreed to provide greater access to community services, individualized evaluations to determine each person’s needs, and increased Medicaid funding and collaboration to better manage waiting lists, and the state agreed to begin moving residents out of the Stockley Center and into the community whenever possible.


Federal Amicus Briefs

City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center (1985)

On behalf of the Texas chapter of the Arc and the national organization, the Law Center filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center arguing that laws discriminating against people with disabilities should be subject to high levels of scrutiny.

In 1980, the Cleburne Living Center (CLC) applied to build a group home in the city of Cleburne, but the application was denied based on a local ordinance that prohibited homes for people with mental disabilities. CLC sued Cleburne, arguing that the ordinance violated the Equal Protection rights of CLC and their potential residents.

In our brief, we argued that a long, tragic history of discrimination against people with disabilities warranted treating mental disability as a suspect class, which would require a much greater degree of justification for any law treating people with disabilities differently than nondisabled people.

The Supreme Court invalidated the ordinance, but it declined to grant the status of suspect or quasi-suspect class. Instead, the Court held that the law was based exclusively on irrational prejudice. Writing separately, Justice Thurgood Marshall relied heavily on our brief, agreeing that the law should be overturned but also arguing that the Court should employ a higher standard of scrutiny.

Olmstead v. L.C. (1999)

The Law Center filed an influential amicus brief in the case Olmstead v. L.C., a Supreme Court case decided in 1999 that recognized the right of people with disabilities to live in the community rather than in segregated institutions.

The brief was filed on behalf of Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, People First of Georgia, Autism National Committee, National Down Syndrome Congress, and Vision For Equality and the people with disabilities represented by those advocacy organizations. The brief argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act clearly prohibits unnecessarily institutionalization, and that the Act requires action to remedy its effects. The Supreme Court largely agreed, holding that people with mental disabilities have the right to live in the community rather than in institutions when “the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”


Ricci v. Patrick (Massachusetts, 2008)

In 2007, the Law Center filed an amicus brief in a Massachusetts deinstitutionalization lawsuit that had been dragging on for over twenty years, helping to guide the contentious litigation to a successful close the following year.

In Ricci v. Patrick, parents of institution residents sued to stop Massachusetts’ 2003 decision to close its large institutions and move individuals with disabilities into small, community-based residences. In 2007, the federal court ruled that the institution must be kept open, despite clear legal preference for community living arrangements.

The state appealed the decision, and the Law Center, along with other advocates, submitted an amicus brief. Filed on behalf of the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, the brief describes other states’ experiences closing large institutions and documents the trend toward deinstitutionalization following the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision. The lower court’s decision was overturned in a unanimous decision, allowing Massachusetts to close four of its six institutions for people with developmental disabilities.

See other Past Housing Cases