The Lessons of the Evans Case and Advocacy for Children with Disabilities in DC

A little over 40 years ago, on February 23, 1976, Evans v. Washington brought claims of mistreatment against Forest Haven, the city’s premiere institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This historic class action case not only highlighted the unconscious biases that led to low and high levels of government failure that stripped people with intellectual and developmental disabilities of basic protections of human rights, it also exposed the extent to which unchecked discrimination will go…

A little over 40 years ago, on February 23, 1976, Evans v. Washington brought claims of mistreatment against Forest Haven, the city’s premiere institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This historic class action case not only highlighted the unconscious biases that led to low and high levels of government failure that stripped people with intellectual and developmental disabilities of basic protections of human rights, it also exposed the extent to which unchecked discrimination will go. While the Evans case as closed and the District of Columbia has made vast improvements in some institutional practices regarding the treatment of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, there remains an uphill battle to create true social equity that humanizes the experiences of people with these forms of disabilities and offers adequate support to ensure an improved quality of life for them.  As Councilmember Vincent Gray (D – Ward 7), who started his career at The Arc of DC, stated,

“We had a focal point for advocacy, and that was Forest Haven,” recalls Gray. “But we’re trying to create a community-based system that is going to be a lot more diffuse, a lot more spread out, a lot more diverse than what we have now. And the advocacy and monitoring efforts that are going to be necessary are going to be infinitely more difficult.” – Martin Austermuhle, “I. Fighting Forest Haven,” in From Institution to Inclusion (WAMU 88.5 News)

There is no place more evident of the need for continued advocacy and monitoring efforts to ensure that basic human rights and the rights of citizenship for people with developmental disabilities are protected than in the DC Public School system, more specifically, in Early Childhood Education.

The story of the Evans family, the lead plantiff in the Evans class action lawsuit, is one of great societal tragedy. The story, well captured in a WAMU 88.5FM Radio special edition entitled From Institution to Inclusion (2016), does not begin when Harold Evans filed a lawsuit in 1976 after the death of his first born daughter, Joy Evans, at Forest Haven. She was 17 years old. It is important to understand the story of Joy Evans and her family when she was diagnosed at 2 years old with a developmental disability and, like so many other children, was placed at Forest Haven where she not only suffered injuries at the hands of the institution, but also had few opportunities for recreation or education.

If it wasn’t for the courage of not only Harold Evans but his wife Betty Evans, who died in 2010, and the community support of advocates that fought diligently from the 1960s until now, there might still be a Forest Haven in Washington, DC.  And even with it’s closure in 1991, with the District rightfully owed its due credit for being one of the first cities in the United Stated to de-institutionalize the treatment of people with developmental disabilities, the same mentality that lazily classified children with developmental disabilities as unteachable and relegated to a “warehoused, out of sight, out of mind, 25 miles from the city,” is still dominant in the school system’s approach to this population.

There’s a national dialogue around best practices in the delivery of Special Education in the United States. It sometimes seems like the District of Columbia is a vacuum, isolated in its own self-contained environment, and does not actively participate or apply standard practices that other places in the country do. Where most states provide have a 60-days from the point of identification of a child suspected with a learning disability to be evaluated, the District of Columbia takes 120 days (4 months). For example, it makes it the only place in the country that takes that long to evaluate a child for a developmental delay of disability.  There has been progressive efforts to change this policy, with the City Council passing Bill 20-724,  the “Enhanced Special Education Services Act of 2014,” which was sponsored by former-Councilmember David Catania and co-sponsored by current Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Mary Cheh, David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie.  Yet, as the law requires that evaluations take place within 60 days from parental consent or within 90 days of a referral, the Children’s Law Center reports that this provision can only go into effect once funding is available, of which the current budget (FY17) passed by the Mayor and DC Council failed to incorporate.

To be prepped for effective advocacy to ensure that the FY18 budget adequately funds Special Education in DC Public Schools, first we must organize and join the Inclusive Prosperity Coalition. Next, we must galvanize support far and wide from the community at large – especially people and organizations that have a historic dedication to protecting the rights of children with disabilities. And, most importantly, we must mobilize an effective campaign to reach the minds and hearts of our Mayor and DC City Council to do what is right and just for children with disabilities. Are you ready? Lets go! Join now.

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