In October 1985, a developmentally disabled man in his late 20s drank a cup of oven cleaner. Despite severe burns, he survived.
He also unwittingly kicked off one of the longest lawsuits in the history of the state of New Mexico.
Today, the Jackson lawsuit—named for Walter Stephen Jackson, and filed after his near-poisoning—has dragged on for nearly 23 years and cost the state millions of dollars.
It also has changed the face of how New Mexico treats its developmentally disabled. Because of the Jackson suit, care has shifted from state-run institutions to intimate, community-based programs that allow disabled people to interact with the public, and to programs that pay family members to care for them.
There’s little doubt the Jackson lawsuit brought necessary change. But today, its legacy is one of conflict. As the Jackson plaintiffs and the state continue to wrangle over the court’s final remaining requirements, the list of New Mexicans waiting to participate in the state’s developmental disability program—4,732—now exceeds the 3,883 people actually served.
On top of that, the New Mexico Department of Health has stated its intentions to cut funding for the very community programs that revolutionized developmental disability care.
“There’s going to be a crisis on our hands,” Deborah Davis Pierson, who cares for her developmentally disabled son under the Developmental Disabilities Waiver Program, tells SFR. “There’s going to be people who can’t afford to live anymore, people with disabilities that either have to move into group homes or be left on their own.”
“There’s going to be a crisis on our hands.”
Indeed, to disability awareness advocates, the cuts seem designed to return New Mexico’s most vulnerable population to the institutional horrors that prompted the Jackson lawsuit in the first place.
Court documents describe Walter Stephen Jackson as “profoundly retarded [with] a seizure disorder.” They also reveal a history of abuse and neglect during the 22 years he lived at the state-run Los Lunas Hospital and Training School, including the oven-cleaner incident, as well as two broken arms.
He was not alone. In 1986, four Los Lunas residents suffered “abrasions and puncture wounds to the head,” records show. One resident, “George,” had 60 accidents and committed two rapes in less than a year.
“Another resident was sexually assaulted and died two days later,” the court decision reads—an incident that went “unexplained and unaccounted for by the institution.”
In May 1989, court observers saw the residents “running around the room, self-stimulating, screaming, and hitting each other.” Thirty-nine residents were punished or restrained with ammonia, water mist, straitjackets and the “papoose board,” a flat board with fabric arm and leg restraints. Others were seat-belted to toilets “because only one staff member was available to assist six residents.” One had nine separate infirmary visits for human bites.
The problems, according to the court, stemmed from a dearth of staff, resources and training—and resulted in abuse, discrimination and unsafe conditions. In a lengthy, sweeping decision, US District Judge James A Parker ordered the state and lawyers representing approximately 700 formerly institutionalized developmentally disabled people to come up with a plan to relocate residents into surrounding communities and to improve institution conditions by September 1991.
In the mid-’90s, the state closed the Los Lunas and Fort Stanton Hospital and Training Schools and relocated all remaining institutional residents. By 1997, the state and plaintiffs had agreed to standards that ensured community care didn’t become just a spread-out version of institutionalization. In 1997, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the agreement would end the case “within about two years.”
But 13 years later, the two sides are still at odds—and New Mexico’s developmentally disabled population is still in limbo.