Supreme Court drawn into fight over plan to discharge 50-year resident of state hospital

State seeks to transfer disabled woman; guardians assert right of refusal

By: - September 15, 2021 2:08 pm
Kansas Supreme Court is asked by guardians of 50-year resident of Parsons state hospital to block Kansas agency's plan to force disabled woman's transfer to community-based housing. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Supreme Court is asked by guardians of 50-year resident of Parsons state hospital to block Kansas agency’s plan to force disabled woman’s transfer to community-based housing. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Attorneys and guardians of a woman with intellectual and mental health challenges who has lived at Parsons state hospital for 50 years pressed Wednesday for the Kansas Supreme Court to block a state agency’s plan to forcefully transfer her to community-based housing.

Advocates of Catherine Roll, who was placed by her parents at Parsons State Hospital and Training Center at age 15, urged the Supreme Court to reverse a Kansas Court of Appeals decision and Sedgwick County District Court verdict dictating she be moved.

“After all these years, the state of Kansas has decided it’s time to force her out into private care known as community-based services,” said David Calvert, a Wichita lawyer representing Roll. “She is happy, healthy and safe” at the southeast Kansas hospital.

The battle over Roll’s residency began in 2015 when Parsons hospital officials responded to a $1.3 million budget cut by identifying 21 residents, including Roll, who were candidates for discharge from the hospital. Her sisters, co-guardians Teresa Roll Kerwick and Mary Ann Burns, filed a lawsuit to secure a permanent injunction prohibiting a transfer without their consent.

In 2018, a trial judge sided with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. The Court of Appeals in 2020 affirmed the decision, prompting Supreme Court review.

Calvert pointed to provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Social Security Act that he argued granted Roll or her guardians the choice between remaining at the hospital or transferring to community-based care. Both lower courts rejected the proposition a state hospitalized patient who qualified for Medicare services had veto power over conclusions of medical staff.

“You’re saying you have a squatter’s right in that bed at Parsons?” asked Justice Dan Biles. “As long as you don’t want to leave, they can’t make you leave?”

Arthur Chalmers, representing the Kansas attorney general’s office in defense of KDADS and Parsons officials, said a guardian didn’t have the authority to compel a disabled person to receive care at a hospital offering more restrictive residential care. The professional medical opinions of Parsons staff should determine placement of people treated at the hospital, he said.

“Miss Roll was selected as a individual who was housed at Parsons who would be better served in an integrated environment — getting her out into the community,” Chalmers said.

Roll has received care at the state hospital for her intellectual disability as well as schizophrenia. Testing revealed she had an IQ of 51. Evaluations showed she communicated, socialized, relied on motor skills and performed daily living tasks at levels equivalent to someone two years to nine years of age.

“This is a fight the state of Kansas started because it wants to discharge this woman,” Justice Biles said. “This boils down to, ‘Do you have the right to discharge her?’ What gives you that legal right?”

Chalmers said the discharge dispute case centered on whether the state was violating the ADA by implementing an involuntary transfer of a person with disabilities. In this instance, he said, the answer was no because equivalent services were available outside the hospital setting.

Several justices questioned why the state’s attorneys didn’t seek dismissal of the guardians if their advocacy of Roll was misguided.

Wichita attorney Stephen Kerwick, who also represents Roll’s interests in the case, said he was troubled by the Court of Appeals’ perspective that recommendations of Parsons hospital staff on placement of a patient effectively trumped opinions of guardians. In addition, he said, transfer of Roll to a group home outside the hospital in Parsons could prove traumatic to her.

“That’s a particularly undesirable result,” Kerwick told justices. “There’s been, in my view, insufficient consideration at all levels to how shocking that it is to move someone from their half-a-century only-home to a new and strange environment.”

The Parsons hospital is one of two residential treatment, training and care facilities operated by the state to serve individuals with intellectual disabilities. The facility receives primary funding through the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.