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Settlement Ends Four-Year Fight To Close Hissom

TULSA A four-year legal battle over a state institution for the mentally retarded ended Monday as a U.S. District judge approved a settlement to close the Hissom Memorial Center in Sand Springs.

U.S. Judge James Ellison approved the consent decree between plaintiffs and the state in the Homeward Bound vs. Hissom case, which calls for closing Hissom by Oct. 1, 1993. The absolute deadline for moving all the Hissom residents into community-based treatment is Oct. 1, 1994, according to the decree.

Ellison said he approved the settlement despite his concerns over the Oklahoma Department of Human Services' commitment to community services for the mentally retarded. Ellison ruled in 1987 that Hissom was violating the civil rights of its clients by not offering alternatives to institutionalization. He ordered the school closed by 1991.

Last year the judge, upset at DHS for not meeting the court-ordered timetable for placing the residents into the community, appointed a court monitor to oversee the closure. Ellison said Monday that despite past history, he was taking the state's promise to move forward at "face value."

"I will accept that but I also have the responsibility and authority to oversee it, and that I will do," Ellison warned.

Under the consent decree, the state will drop its appeal of the class-action lawsuit filed in 1985 by a few parents and develop the support services in the community. The range of residential options to be considered for each client range from apartment living to small group homes.

DHS officials say the new time frame to close Hissom under the consent decree is more realistic than the original court order.

"I know it's been perceived that the state is dragging its feet, but we have been dedicated to community services," said Jane Hartley, vice chairman of the state Commission on Human Services. "It's been a lack of community services out there. We've had to train providers and educate parents.

"I'm very happy the litigation has ceased. This will be the end of adversarial actions. It's a new age."

Hartley, who is also a parent of a Hissom client, said the consent decree also gives parents more of a role in the decision-making process than the original court order. Parents or guardians may ask for a hearing if they disagree with a placement decision, and a review panel would resolve any dispute, she said.

The decree also calls for exceptions which would possibly allow placement of severely disabled at state schools in Pauls Valley or Enid, she said.

"They didn't have that in the other order," Hartley said. Parents "had no rights. I, as a parent, felt that was important."

Hissom was first built in 1964. The center now has 390 residents and had 440 residents when the lawsuit was filed four years ago.

About 50 of the Hissom residents, some bedfast, attended Monday's hearing and five testified they wanted the school closed. One, Laura Van Sickle, has been living at Hissom since 1964.

"I don't like Hissom," she testified from her wheelchair.

Many parents, though, wanted the school to remain open; 140 had filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit. Five parents testified Monday that some Hissom residents, especially those who they describe as medically fragile, could not cope outside the institution.

But a Michigan mental health official testified that many of the parents in his state who originally opposed releasing clients from institutions are now the most vocal supporters.

Gerald Provencal, director of an agency in Michigan that provides community-based services for people with developmental disabilities, said the state had 13,000 people in institutions in 1969, but now has only about 1,100.

"We saw there was nothing to argue about for a period of time because it was better for everyone," he said. "No one asks to come back." BIOG: NAME:

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