By P.J. D’Annunzio

A federal class action has been allowed to proceed against the state Department of Human Services, brought by a group of mentally disabled Pennsylvania youths claiming they were left too long in treatment facilities and not given access to proper treatment.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied DHS’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, in which the agency claimed the named plaintiffs, between the ages of 10 and 19—representing a class of individuals under age 21 considered dependent—had no valid claims.

Jones wrote in his opinion that the case “paints a picture of the sad reality for various dependent youths in Pennsylvania.”

“Many dependent children with mental disabilities end up in large, congregate facilities for years while they wait for appropriate placement from DHS,” he continued. “Others end up waiting for months or years in inappropriate settings, such as psychiatric hospitals, juvenile detention facilities, and residential treatment facilities (‘RTFs’) while they wait for placement from DHS.”

The plaintiffs alleged that DHS violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and Title XIX of the Social Security Act, more commonly known as Medicaid.

According to Jones’ opinion, 18-year-old Teddy Smith was placed in a secure state-operated youth development center where he was assaulted by staff within the first two weeks. A 15-year-old, N.C., was bounced around from foster home to foster home while waiting for DHS to place him in a permanent home. Eventually his caretakers had to look out of state.

S.R., a 10-year-old, completed his mental health treatment but DHS kept him in limbo and 19-year-old Chrystal Steward has been ready for discharge from her RTF for nearly one year, but DHS has not given her an appropriate placement, Jones said.

DHS argued that the care provided to mentally disabled people varies from individual to individual and that the plaintiffs’ claims should be handled administratively and not through federal litigation.

However, Jones said the law spoke to the contrary and shot down each of DHS’s points for why the case should be dismissed.

Jones said DHS’s motion to dismiss was based entirely on the argument that the plaintiffs’ claims are not privately enforceable. But the judge disagreed, pointing to the mandate set forth in U.S.C. Section 1396a(a)(43)(A), requiring a state plan for arranging Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment (EPSDT) services for Pennsylvanians under 21 who are eligible for medical assistance.

“We hold that the [Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment] mandate contains specific language and an individualistic focus that demonstrates Congress’ intent to confer private rights of action to individuals,” Jones said.

The plaintiffs are represented by Gabriella Labella and Kelly L. Darr of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and Jeni Hergenreder and Shanon S. Levin of Disability Rights Pennsylvania. The lawyers did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

DHS is represented by attorney Matthew J. McLees of the Office of General Counsel. McLees also did not respond to a request for comment.