FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Barry C. Taylor, Legal Advocacy Director
(312) 341-0022, ext. 7317, (800) 537-2632
Barry Lowy, Senior Attorney
(217) 544-0464, (800) 758-0464 (Voice/TTY)
Public Information Director
Equip for Equality Wins Important Mental Health Victory in Guardianship Case
Appellate Court Rules That Nursing Home Falls Under Mental Health
SPRINGFIELD, ILL. (March 3, 2003) -- In a far-reaching decision that broadly impacts the rights of people with mental illness under guardianship in Illinois, the Appellate Court, 4th District, held that any person, including the Office of State Guardian (OSG), must comply with the requirements of the Mental Health Code before placing a person in the behavioral unit of a skilled-care nursing facility, establishing that it qualifies as a mental health facility. Prior to this decision, the law was not clear that a nursing home could qualify as a mental health facility.
"The significance of this decision for people with mental illness who live in nursing homes with mental health units or nursing homes primarily serving the mentally ill is profound; it means that the added protections of the state's mental health law apply to them," says Zena Naiditch President and CEO of Equip for Equality.
Equip for Equality (EFE), the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy System for people with physical and mental disabilities designated by the Governor, filed the appeal on behalf of Sandra Muellner, a 55-year-old woman diagnosed with mental illness who was involuntarily placed in the behavioral unit of Sycamore Health Care, a 24-hour skilled nursing facility, in Quincy, Ill. by the Office of State Guardian. Senior attorney Barry Lowy from EFE's Springfield office represented Muellner.
"Our decision to pursue this issue was based on the potential systemic impact of the case for other people with mental illness, including those under guardianship, whose right of self-determination would be infringed upon in a similar situation," says Lowy. "By ruling that nursing homes are covered by the Mental Health Code, the Appellate Court has ensured new rights protection for people with mental illness whose guardian might attempt to place them in a segregated facility against their will."
Muellner's situation arose after the death of her husband, which caused her to become depressed and to develop other health problems. She was convinced to admit herself to the psychiatric unit of Blessing Hospital where a social worker alleged that Muellner could not care for herself and filed petitions for guardianship and temporary guardianship.
The trial court appointed the Office of State Guardian as Muellner's temporary guardian and scheduled a hearing for a plenary guardianship for January 2002. In November 2001, the Office of State Guardian unilaterally placed Muellner against her will in New Horizons, which is the behavioral unit at Sycamore Health Care.
EFE represented Muellner at the hearing for plenary guardianship and filed a motion to limit the Office of State Guardian's power to place Muellner in a nursing home because OSG had not complied with the Mental Health Code's requirements for involuntary placements. Julie Irvine, program director for the West Central Illinois Center for Independent Living (WCI-CIL) testified on Muellner's behalf stating that she was capable of living independently in the community with the aid of a personal assistant.
The trial court, however, denied EFE's motion and granted the Office of State Guardian the right to place Muellner in a nursing home if placement in a less restrictive environment was deemed harmful to her.
EFE appealed the decision in March 2002 even though Muellner had by then been permitted to return to independent living with assistance from a state grant designed to help persons move out of nursing homes and live independently in the community. With WCI-CIL's help, she is doing well under this arrangement.
"This case is an example of Equip for Equality's commitment to advocate that people with disabilities receive due process of law, " says Barry Taylor, EFE Legal Advocacy Director. "Involuntary placement of people with disabilities in a segregated facility is a serious deprivation of individual liberty and guardians must meet the standard under the Mental Health Code to justify such placements."
For more information, contact Barry Lowy at 217-544-0464 or 800-758-0464 (Voice/TTY).