Pennsylvania disability advocates file legal suit to challenge guardianship laws | National
Wormleysburg, Pa. — On April 18, disability advocates and Independent Living Centers filed an Amicus Brief with the state Supreme Court regarding long-term care services for people with disabilities.
The brief cites SCOTUS’s landmark ruling in Olmstead and objects to an alleged overuse of guardianship under state law for disabled and older individuals, including a failure to apply alternatives to guardianship.
The brief focuses on the case of David Italiano, an Alleged Incapacitated Person with a Disability. Currently, Mr. Italiano is institutionalized against his expressed wishes by the Huntingdon County Area Agency on Aging and has been stripped of his rights to self-determination.
According to the seven disability rights organizations that jointly filed the brief, court proceedings found that Mr. Italiano is capable of transitioning to an independent living situation and the Agency on Aging is stubbornly refusing to entertain the idea of a less restrictive living arrangement.
Though the case is specifically focused on the situation of Mr. Italiano, civil rights and disability advocates say that the issue affects every Pennsylvanian that may be at risk of having their rights restricted or removed due to age or disability.
“For all practical purposes, the state simply ‘disappeared’ David through an overly zealous and potentially abusive guardianship program that has deprived him of his fundamental rights as well as his own home,” said Misty Dion of Roads to Freedom Center for Independent Living of North Central PA (RTFCIL).
“Our organization is broadly recognized by both federal and state agencies as qualified and experienced to advocate for disabled and older people seeking services to preserve and promote their dignity and rights. Warehousing David in an institution and depriving him of his right to connect with loved ones and friends, while prohibiting us from continuing to provide him the essential services he requests, is a gross violation of his legal and human rights.”
RTFCIL previously worked with Mr. Italiano and a guardian. Italiano was a homeowner, but was moved to the Agency on Aging where he complained about abuses at the nursing facility. He attempted to leave the facility and return to living independently during a COVID outbreak. RTFCIL helped him file complaints with the State Ombudsman, which they said have gone unanswered.
The Huntingdon County Orphans Court approved of Italiano’s plan to transition to independent living arrangements in January of 2021, but the judge transferred his guardianship to the Agency on Aging which has restricted his access to advocacy, transitional, and communication services, including confiscating personal cell phones from him.
The Ombudsman eventually responded to the allegations of abuse by sending a cease and desist letter to RTFCIL.
While the Road to Freedom Center and other advocates battle with the legal system, Mr. Italiano remains in a facility against his will and is at risk of the Agency on Aging choosing to sell his home to pay for his continued institutionalization.
To remedy situations like Mr. Italiano’s, the Road to Freedom Center presented a list of recommendations from last year’s Fourth National Guardianship Summit – Maximizing Autonomy and Assuring Accountability. The recommendations are included in the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act (Uniform Act), which:
- Prohibits guardianships where less restrictive alternatives would meet an adult’s functional needs
- Require specific court findings before certain critical rights (examples: to marry, vote, choose visitors) are abridged
- Require petitioners to state whether less restrictive alternatives have been tried and justify any failure to do so
- Create mechanisms that adults subject to guardianship and others can use to trigger modification or termination of an order
Some states have adopted the Uniform Act or similar rules, but Pennsylvania is not one of them.
“Even the American Bar Association determines guardianship as a ‘drastic intervention,’ and that less restrictive options are much preferred,” said Mike Grier, Executive Director of PCIL. “That drastic intervention by aging organizations and courts here in Pennsylvania has stripped David Italiano and countless others of their dignity, their privacy, their right to choose where they live and with whom they associate. The current situation is simply untenable and must be changed.”
The seven organizations that filed the brief hope that it will help the state begin the process of reforming its guardianship and long-term care systems.