Justice Department finds Nebraska unnecessarily institutionalizes people with serious mental illness

May 15, 2024, 10 a.m. ·

Gov. Jim Pillen
The Justice Department sent a letter to Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen detailing its findings that Nebraska violated federal civil rights laws. (Nebraska Public Media News photo)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department determined Nebraska is unnecessarily segregating people with serious mental illness in assisted living facilities and day program facilities.

A press release announcing the findings stated the state is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. by restricting access to critical community-based services that people with serious mental illness need to live and work in the community.

The ADA and the Olmstead decisions require states to make their services for people with disabilities available in the most integrated setting for each person’s needs, places like people’s homes and workplaces. With the right services, people with serious mental illness can live in their own homes. They can also get and keep jobs where they work alongside people without disabilities doing the same work for the same pay.

Instead of helping Nebraskans with serious mental illness find jobs, the press release stated Nebraska relies heavily on segregated day programs that group these individuals together in facilities. People with serious mental illness may spend years in segregated day programs with no path to employment, the press release stated. Instead of being able to live in their own homes, many people with serious mental illness are forced to enter assisted living facilities to get help.

“Far too often, people with mental health disabilities are institutionalized when they could succeed and thrive in the community,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in the press release. “It’s time to bring an end to the days of funneling people with disabilities down a dead-end road towards institutionalization and unemployment when they could succeed if provided pathways towards independence and dignity. The Justice Department remains committed to protecting the rights of people with disabilities and ensuring that the ADA’s promise of integration becomes a reality.”

The department described its findings and listed minimum remedial measures in a letter to Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen.

Following the announcement, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement expressing disappointment with the allegations following a multiyear investigation by the Department of Justice that began in 2021.

Since Gov. Jim Pillen took office in January 2023, the Department has engaged with policymakers, stakeholders, and community partners to enhance community-based services throughout Nebraska, the press release stated.

It listed several accomplishments related to helping those with serious mental illness, including the creation of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, implementing better assessment, tracking, and referral systems for disability accommodations and offering services to find employment and live independently, such as supported employment programs and permanent supportive housing.

Nebraska offers services that could help its citizens with serious mental illness find jobs and live independently, including a service called “supported employment” that helps people with serious mental illness find jobs and support them in the workplace. Nebraska also offers services that help people with serious mental illness succeed in their own homes.

But the Justice Department found that Nebraska limits access to community-based services and has not developed enough service capacity to enable people with serious mental illness to avoid unnecessary institutionalization. As a result, many Nebraskans with serious mental illness struggle to access community-based services. Instead, for many Nebraskans with serious mental illness the only options are institutions and unemployment. Nebraska could expand access to its existing community-based services so those in need can get the support they need to live and work in the community.