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St. Louis County trying to meet services agenda

While the state of Minnesota struggles to roll out sweeping reforms in the way it provides services to people with physical and mental disabilities, one group is no longer waiting for change from the top down. Instead, the Self-Advocates of Minnesota, or SAM, is counting on a grass-roots initiative it hopes will speed reforms by empowering people who are served by the state’s myriad human services programs.

“We haven’t seen anything changing on the ground,” said Laura Birnbaum, who works out of Duluth as a community organizer for SAM’s Northeastern Minnesota region. “We can’t wait for it to be rolled out anymore.”

Birnbaum’s assessment supports a federal judge’s opinion of the state’s rollout of its Olmstead plan — the state’s hefty road map to providing person-

centered services. Earlier this month, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Judge Donovan Frank’s admonishments of the state’s efforts, which he said were “disappointing” and “attended by non-compliance.”

A St. Louis County official, though, believes the county is both digesting reforms and moving forward toward a more

person-centered model for providing services.

Mark Thomas is director of adult services for the county. He cited one upcoming measure county officials believe will set

St. Louis County on the right path, specifically with housing options.

“Our theory is strong initial and ongoing assessments will reduce inappropriate placements and overstatement of a person’s needs,” he said.

The effect, he said, would be to increase more socially integrated placements, and decrease the need for congregated settings like group homes, assisted living homes and apartments where people with disabilities or vulnerabilities are the majority population.

These housing options — there are more than 14,000 corporate-run group homes throughout the state, said Thomas — amount to segregation, say advocates like Birnbaum. The problem, she said, is that group homes and their ilk have provided the template for housing for so long that alternative ideas and housing options are scarce.

To help usher in change, SAM is joining advocacy groups across the state to take part in the Olmstead Academy in August. The academy, Birnbaum explained, will train people with disabilities or vulnerabilities in groups of three — two self-advocates and an ally per team — on Olmstead reforms. The teams will then develop action plans on how to make reforms happen.

“We need to have self-advocates at the table,” Birnbaum said. “This is about their lives and they should be driving it as well.”

Birnbaum pointed to Olmstead listening sessions as an example of the disconnect between reform and reality. The listening sessions tour the state with officials from various human services departments. Their goal is to have the Olmstead plan be a living document that evolves with input. But while the session in Duluth last May — attended by the News Tribune — heard from advocates, the panel did not include any people with physical or mental disabilities.

That panel’s make-up of department heads further perpetuates what Birnbaum described as a long-held “power dynamic” between people with physical disabilities or other vulnerabilities and those who think they know what’s best for those populations.

The question for her becomes, “how do you give power and control back to people?” she said.

Giving people with physical and mental challenges the power to choose where they live, whether they work in sheltered settings or in the general workplace, how they get around town, where they shop, and who their social workers and conservators are challenges almost every current notion about how human services are provided. Birnbaum called it a “complex reality.”

The sheer scope of such reform hasn’t deterred St. Louis County from trying, said Thomas.

“This isn’t a new thing for us; it’s the next level,” said Thomas.

“I would say our county has a good history at looking to the client and asking them, ‘What are you interested in?’ It’s not something we’ve been resistant to,” Thomas said.

He cited as an example the county’s integration into the community of people following the closing of the state hospital in Moose Lake several years ago. He also echoed Birnbaum’s sentiments when he said he understands “there’s dignity involved in providing people the least restrictive and most integrated” services.

For her part, Birnbaum’s advocacy also includes an understanding that it will take cooperation to push for reform.

“It’s not one person’s responsibility to figure this out,” she said. “This is long overdue. We’re behind the times in how we do things in this region. I’m excited about the Olmstead Academy. We want to see this become something that happens — not just something on paper.”