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Judge ends Maine's Pineland consent decree

By David Sharp
Associated Press Writer / March 19, 2010

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PORTLAND, Maine—A federal judge on Friday ended a court order that governed services for 1,500 adults with mental disabilities over a period of more than 30 years, leading to the closing of the Pineland Center and the creation of community-based services.

With a stroke of the pen, U.S. District Justice George Singal terminated the Pineland consent decree, which was originally filed in 1978.

In his decision, Singal wrote that the state was in substantial compliance with the updated consent decree that went into effect in 1994, that the state has demonstrated a commitment to achieving compliance, and that there are mechanisms in place to ensure compliance into the future.

"Having found that defendants have met the benchmarks for termination of the 1994 consent decree, the court concludes defendants are entitled to relief from judgment," he wrote.

The decree led to the closing of the state-run Pineland Center, along with de-institutionalization and development of community services for Pineland's residents.

Attorney General Janet Mills said lawyers for the remaining 750 plaintiffs who'd lived in Pineland before it closed in 1996 wanted to continue the decree until the plaintiffs' deaths. But Mills asked Singal last fall to terminate the agreement because the state fulfilled its obligations.

"The state has done a good job providing services for this population. In fact, we're one of only a handful of states that do not institutionalize adults with cognitive disabilities. So we stand in good stead in the national standards," Mills said Friday.

The consent decree came about after a lawsuit in 1975 over conditions at the state-run institution for adults with mental disabilities in New Gloucester.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, recalled Friday that conditions were so bad back then that he was in tears after witnessing them. On Friday, he praised the state's progress in ensuring that this vulnerable population is adequately cared for in communities.

"This decision is a marker of success for the people of Maine. It shows we've made progress, but that we must continue our work to ensure it never happens again," he said.

Over time, the Pineland consent decree has been overseen by four different federal judges, three different court masters and 10 different state commissioners, Mills said. Taxpayers spent $2.4 million on plaintiff lawyers fees, court master costs and other expenses over the past eight years, she said.

The Pineland Center buildings and campus were rescued by the Libra Foundation, the philanthropic organization established by the late Elizabeth B. Noyce.

The Libra Foundation purchased the buildings and spent millions of dollars on renovations of the buildings, some of which dated to 1908. Pineland now boasts office space, a YMCA, working farms, educational programs and an outdoor center for cross-country skiing.