Lawyer says lawsuit helped prompt reforms
The Colorado Department of Human Services will pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit that contended the rights of intellectually disabled residents of a state-run center in Pueblo were violated when officials strip searched them to determine if they were abused.
The March 2015 strip searches of 62 residents at the Pueblo Regional Center for the severely intellectually disabled “resulted in disregard of individual rights including privacy, dignity and respect,” the state’s public health department determined after it investigated civil rights complaints filed by guardians.
The lawsuit alleged the searches were non-consensual, violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and unlawfully discriminated against them. The Colorado Department of Human Services denied any wrongdoing as part of the settlement and maintained the examinations were conducted in the interest of protecting the safety of the residents.
Some of the residents who were strip searched had experienced sexual abuse in the past. During the searches, some were disrobed and their genitals and buttocks were physically inspected.
The $1 million settlement includes attorney’s fees and costs and money that will be divided among about 20 plaintiffs. Nominal amounts also will be paid to several guardians and family members of the residents, who also had contended they should have been contacted before the searches occurred.
“The amount of the settlement obviously acknowledges the gravity of the issues,” said Mari Newman, a civil rights lawyer in Denver who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the residents.
Newman said she “has no doubt” that the lawsuit helped prompt the Colorado Department of Human Services to put in place numerous policy changes at the center.
Those changes, which had been recommended by the state’s public health department and the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, include improvements in how the center reports allegations of mistreatment, abuse, neglect and exploitation to both law enforcement and regulators. The state also increased funding for additional staffing, training and salary increases. The center also has changed policies regarding the rights of residents and their guardians.
A federal audit also found that the strip searches violated the rights of residents, who feared they could not refuse to participate in them. Federal regulators barred the state from letting the center accept new residents because the federal audit found residents had been subjected to pervasive sexual and physical abuse.
That moratorium on new residents at the center, now home to 44 residents, will be lifted next week due to the policy improvements, the Colorado Department of Human Services announced in a statement Friday. Federal regulators supported lifting the moratorium, state officials said in that statement.