Several lawsuits have been filed against the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) commissioner Nancy Buckner and State Superintendent Eric Mackey following an investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The DOJ concluded that some foster care students with emotional and behavioral disabilities have been mistreated in specialized treatment centers (STCs) across the state.

“The vast majority of students enrolled in STCs while receiving residential care are unnecessarily segregated and could be served in general education schools given appropriate services and supports,” the DOJ report stated. “In many cases, these students could be successful in general education settings even without additional services or supports other than transportation.”

Because the DOJ determined that DHR is violating Title II of the ADA, some impacted people seek compensation from DHR and the Superintendent.

Claims in the six federal lawsuits list Sequel Tuskegee, Sequel Courtland, Sequel Owens Cross Roads and SafetyNet as the facilities in which the plaintiffs were enrolled.

“These facilities and this segregation have deprived these children of the opportunity to partake in general education settings and have denied them access to education of equal or equivalent quality as their non-disabled peers,” the lawsuits state. “Such blatant discrimination has inflicted severe harm on these children, starkly contravening the protections and equal opportunities assured to them under the Americans with Disabilities Act .”

The DOJ added that the State has been aware of its failures since at least 2019. The investigation into the State began in 2019 after the DOJ received a complaint about “a large number of children in the State’s foster care system to STCs with substandard educational services and facilities, as a consequence of the children’s placement in institutional settings.

“Our investigation revealed that, for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities in DHR’s custody who are enrolled in STCs (and students who are at risk of such assignment), the State fails to provide educational and therapeutic services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs,” the DOJ stated. “We further found that the segregated STCs provide unequal educational opportunities to students compared to the services provided in general education settings.

“… In addition, many of the children who were observed and interviewed by our experts have likely experienced physiological effects from trauma that manifest as impairments under the ADA. The ADA defines a person with a disability to include someone who has, is regarded as having, or has a record of having a ‘physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

“… Here, our experts note that these children have all been made wards of the State and placed in the child welfare system. which likely stemmed from a traumatic experience (e.g., abuse, neglect). Further, many of these children have encountered additional traumatic experiences after being placed in foster care, including multiple moves and placement disruptions and the loss of connection with their families, schools, and communities.”

In some cases, plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit claim they have suffered educationally, financially and socially because of the nonaction from the State. One was put in multiple facilities when he was eight and remained in the system for four years. The lawsuit states the child only finished eighth grade and has been unable to obtain his GED.

“As a direct and proximate cause of Defendant’s violations of the ADA, [the plaintiff] has suffered and continues to experience severe and grievous mental and emotional suffering, humiliation, stigma, and other injuries they will continue to suffer,” one of the lawsuits states.

The report also stated that some STCs “inappropriately use restraint and seclusion” for punishment. They also said some teachers in these facilities are not qualified for the job and that the State does not appropriately monitor STCs.

The DOJ asked the State to modify policies and procedures.

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