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‘Pitting one group against another’: Tennessee asks disabled adults to make way for foster kids

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‘Pitting one group against another’: Tennessee asks disabled adults to make way for foster kids

Jun 10, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Anita Wadhwani
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‘Pitting one group against another’: Tennessee asks disabled adults to make way for foster kids
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Kenneth Lamar, father of Rebecca, sits on her bed in her old room which has stayed just the way it was before she went to a DIDD facility. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The letter from the state’s disability agency landed like a bombshell.

The state-run homes in which Kenneth and Kathy Lamar’s severely-disabled adult daughter has lived for seven years will be “decommissioned” to make room for kids needing foster care, it said.

“We will work with you and your loved one to review the options” read the form letter from the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD).

The Lamars are among scores of guardians and families of adults living with intellectual and developmental disabilities who were notified May 6 of plans to repurpose the residences for children in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

Kathy Lamar said they feel betrayed by Tennessee disability officials, who — until now — have assured them that their daughter, Rebecca, will receive round-the-clock quality care in a Nashville cottage she shares with three other women for the rest of her life.

Department of Children’s Services housing children–many disabled–in hospitals for 8+ months

Rebecca Lamar, 42, has decorated her pink bedroom with family photos and posters of Loretta Lynn, her idol. She has cerebral palsy, limited vision, relies on a wheelchair to get around and possesses the cognitive abilities of a ten-year-old child — none of which get in the way of her love of dressing in evening costumes and listening to children’s audiobooks.

“It’s like they’re robbing Peter to take care of Paul because DCS has let these problems linger,” Kathy Lamar said last week. “My heart does go out to these children, but I’m not going to let them have my child’s bed. No. There’s no difference between her and these kids.”

Facing an uproar from affected families, DIDD officials said last week that “no one is being evicted from their homes and we have stated that in conversations with family members.”

It was the department’s intent “to start assisting people and families with identifying private provider service options in their communities and of the support we are prepared to offer those transitioning into appropriate community or private ICF settings (nursing homes),” their statement said.

But in their private conversations, family members reported feeling pressured by state officials who emphasized the pressing needs facing children in state custody. There are fewer spaces available for DCS kids with medical needs than adults receiving DIDD services, state officials noted.

“They are using the plight of young people in DCS custody to encourage the conservators and families to get these people to move,” said Zoe Jamail, policy director for Disability Rights Tennessee, which has written its own letter to the families saying they are under no obligation to move their loved ones out of the homes.

“They are pitting one group against another,” she said.

Kids spent months in hospitals

For more than three years, state social workers have struggled to find foster homes for children taken into state custody as a result of abuse or neglect — an even tougher proposition when children have ongoing medical needs such as tracheostomies and feeding tubes, or are wheelchair-bound.

Child advocates have long noted that some parents have felt forced to surrender kids with disabilities to the state because they have been unable to get them the in-home care they need, a reality that a DCS spokesperson acknowledged last week while noting the agency does not track data on parental surrenders.

In 2022, DCS chief Margie Quin said publicly that children were being needlessly hospitalized for lack of better options — in some cases for more than eight months at a time, the Lookout reported at the time.

Last year, Gov. Bill Lee unveiled the state’s solution to the problem: the “Tennessee Strong Homes” initiative. The state would place children with complex medical needs in vacant cottages that once cared for adults with intellectual disabilities as part of the initiative.

The initiative grew out of the “need to support Tennessee hospitals,” who were tasked with caring for DCS kids, a DCS spokesperson said. Currently nine children are living in the homes formerly occupied by adults with disabilities, according to DCS.

It wasn’t until last month that state officials alerted families and guardians of current residents that their homes were also being eyed for children.

The cottages were built in 2016 after the long-delayed closure of Clover Bottom in Nashville and Greene Valley Developmental Center in Greenville — facilities built in an earlier era when people with disabilities were placed in large institutions at young ages for the rest of their lives.

A deinstitutionalization movement across the nation, enforced in Tennessee through court orders, asserted the rights of people to live with disabilities in home-like settings. The cottages are scattered through neighborhoods in west, middle and east Tennessee.

‘They think they’ll get more sympathy for these kids’

Among the current residents is Clark Blackwell who, starting at age 17, spent 35 years at Clover Bottom before moving into a four-person cottage next door to Rebecca Lamar’s. Staff also transitioned out of Clover Bottom to the new homes. Blackwell has had some of the same caregivers for 40 years, his family said.

Blackwell is nonverbal but mobile; he can eat, dress and bathe without assistance. He goes to the YMCA regularly, blasts rock and Christian music on his boombox and picks out his own produce on trips to the grocery store.

“He’s been living his best life,” said Dianne McVetty, Blackwell’s sister.

A grandmother to 10 foster children, six of whom were adopted, McVetty said she was sympathetic to the needs of kids in DCS custody, but not at her brother’s expense.

Department of Children’s Services wrestles with solutions for housing kids in state custody

While there may be options in private-sector group and nursing homes, the family sees no reason to move Blackwell now.

For a short period years ago, the family moved Blackwell from Clover Bottom to a privately run facility, but pulled him out again after he was the victim of physical abuse, suffering cigarette burns and bites to his hand, his sister said.

“It seems like they’re trying to fix one problem while creating another,” she said. “Clark has endured so much in his life, something he can’t even tell you about.”

McVetty said in her phone calls with DIDD officials that they stressed “what those kids are going through.”

“But this is my brother,” she said. “My opinion is that they think they’ll get more sympathy for these kids than adults and they just want us to move them to other places in the private sector, no matter the quality.”

Like the Lamar family, she said the past few weeks has shattered the peace she felt knowing her brother, the baby in the family, would have care even after she was gone.

“You can’t go to sleep, because you lay down and hear them saying they can terminate Clark at any time,” said McVetty, who is 69. “Even if they tell me Clark is OK for now, when’s the other shoe going to drop?”

Original DIDD Community Transition Letter