Feds to Provide Technical Assistance to Ventura County HSA on Civil Rights Compliance

Complaint alleged discrimination on behalf of consumer with disabilities seeking services to overcome homelessness.

In late October 2013, I was assisting one of our adult students with disabilities with his matters involving Ventura County’s Human Services Agency (HSA). His disabilities arising from traumatic brain injury (TBI) had contributed to a 10-year spell of homelessness; it was necessary for us to help him overcome homelessness in order for him to go back to school and get trained in a vocation that would earn him a living.

This was beyond the scope of the work we usually do, plus it was a pro bono case. I only took this case on because I already knew the consumer, have been friends with his family for over 20 years, and was horrified by what I was hearing from them about their efforts to help him. I had no idea I’d end up having to file for fair hearings against every agency we turned to for services on multiple occasions just to access the basic floor of rights promised him under the law.

As bad as special education is, the Universe of adult services is even more screwed up. This is why we have people with mental illness living in the bushes under the freeway. They either have no idea where to begin to get help or are jerked around by the government when they try to get help and lack the skills to advocate effectively for themselves to see their situations resolved. This is exactly why my friend’s family was so thankful that I offered to see what I could do to help.

So, in October 2013, after a series of ridiculous encounters with HSA’s General Relief program staff, I filed a complaint with the United States Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Civil Rights (OCR), alleging violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I’d had enough of the silliness and was so disgusted and offended by how our consumer was being treated by HSA that I did what I do: I wrote a letter to the authorities and narced.

I have to give credit where credit is entirely due, here. I was inspired in part by the then-recent 9th Circuit Decision achieved by my colleague David Grey of Grey & Grey in Santa Monica, CA, on behalf of two students with hearing loss against their local school districts for violating their respective rights under the ADA to have their communication preferences considered with respect to the development and implementation of their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), which are supposed to be created in conformity with the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as the ADA.

Upon remand, a federal District Court ruled in favor of one of the students involved on the basis of ADA violations. Had David not achieved the first win at the 9th Circuit, I would not have been as well read about how the ADA and its communication preference requirement are enforced.

This section of the ADA applied in our consumer’s case with HSA because we had repeatedly asked that all written communications be sent, or at least copied to, KPS4Parents as the consumer’s designated representatives. This was his communication preference and it was also a reasonable accommodation to address his extreme challenges with managing his personal affairs, paperwork, appointments, etc., thanks to loss of executive functioning and memory arising from his TBIs. HSA would send him things, which he would then lose and forget about, and we’d have no idea he was missing important deadlines.

Intellectually, our consumer can handle college-level curriculum and, in spite of everything that was going on during the Fall 2013 semester, he achieved his GED and finished the semester with two Bs and an A at his local community college. He just can’t keep things organized and needs accommodations and supports for staying on top of all his adult responsibilities.

In addition to the issue with HSA refusing to honor our consumer’s requests for all written communications to be sent to us, or at least copied to us, so things wouldn’t slip through the cracks as a result of his disability, we also had another issue. The written communications being sent to our consumer were vague and cryptic half the time. He thought he was struggling to understand them because of his disability when it was just that they made no sense.

It got to the point that anything that came in the mail with a government emblem on it gave him heart palpitations. He would avoid dealing with these things in the moment because they stressed him out and then totally forget about them ten minutes later because of his memory impairment. This is effectively a formula for homelessness in the absence of reasonable accommodations and competent advocacy.

Fast forward to today, and after waiting for about a year-and-half to find out what the heck is going on with this complaint, I finally got a letter from OCR. In short, it has negotiated with HSA to provide technical assistance to HSA regarding the scope of its obligations under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA.

OCR did not conduct a comprehensive investigation; rather, it reviewed our complaint and evidence, and probably requested additional information from HSA. Evidently, whatever OCR found was enough to offer technical assistance to HSA rather than declare our complaint unfounded.

Here’s the kicker, though, and why we’re sharing this story online: Should anyone else file a complaint making similar allegations against HSA, OCR may initiate a formal investigation of the matter. Note I said “may” and not “will.” One complaint from a similarly aggrieved party may not be enough to trigger an investigation, though it could, but several complaints from similarly aggrieved parties likely would.

It’s not like I want to invite a world of hurt onto the County unnecessarily, but I have every reason to believe that the problems I encountered in representing our consumer are systemic and pervasive. Our consumer was the victim of internal policy that conflicts with federal law. If the policies discriminated against him, he can’t be the only one. I have no idea how deep this rabbit hole runs or how effective OCR’s technical assistance will be in achieving systemic improvements in all necessary areas.

There are too many people with mental health issues who need these government services to prevent or overcome homelessness, but are denied legitimate access to services because of how these programs are bureaucratically structured and operated. I am reaching out to colleagues and others in the community who may have encountered similar situations that would warrant a formal complaint to OCR and asking them to assist their consumers, patients, family members, or whoever they know who is facing these challenges in filing complaints.

I only saw what was going on because I did something that isn’t commonly done: I represented a consumer challenged by disability and homelessness, which put me as a professional advocate in a position to see things that only the homeless usually see. “Mortified” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I can only imagine what the average unrepresented person challenged by mental health issues and homelessness must encounter if he/she even attempts to avail him-/herself of HSA’s services. I’m convinced this is a significant contributing factor to Ventura County’s significant homeless population.

I am posting redacted copies of the complaint I originally filed with OCR and its response for public disclosure. See the links below:

I’m doing this so that people who may have similar claims against HSA can see exactly what was alleged and exactly what OCR is doing and available to do moving forward. Since this complaint resulted in a seemingly successful outcome, it can be reasonably presumed to serve as an adequate example for any parties seeking to file similar complaints.

A word of warning: submit your complaint online and not by mail. I tried sending it Certified so I’d have proof of delivery, but it was returned by the Postal Service on the basis of a supposedly bad address, which I got from OCR’s website. You can file a complaint online at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/office/file/index.html.

This information is particularly relevant to social workers, legal aid providers, mental health providers, law enforcement, and other professionals who regularly encounter persons challenged by disability and homelessness, in addition to the individuals who are so challenged, in Ventura County. While our original complaint was specific to certain HSA programs, OCR is enforcing the technical assistance option with the entire HSA.

Therefore, complaints alleging uninformative communications that cannot be understood by persons challenged by disabilities and/or refusals to consider the communication preferences of persons challenged by disabilities against any HSA department may be similar enough to trigger a formal federal investigation of HSA. Of course, I have to acknowledge that the likelihood of someone so challenged to follow what I’m saying, herein, may not be very high, so it is on the rest of us to do something about this.

How many people does the County employ at its citizens’ expense to apparently do more to keep people with disabilities on the street than off it? What are the costs of this apparent systemic failure to Ventura County’s communities for its homeless problems, particularly given the degree to which mental health conditions contribute to homelessness? And, how pervasive is this issue beyond Ventura County? I think I may have cracked my knee against the tip of a very big iceberg. Again. Dang!

KPS4Parents is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, tax ID 65-1195513. All donations are tax-deductible.

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