Ben Wolf

Our son is nonverbal, but by his body language, we gather that he is proud, happy, he feels accepted and important, and that he belongs to an extended family – Rimland. Rimland nurtures his self-esteem, structures his daily activities, and installs goals. He used to be crabby, but now we often see him smile.

— The Crisostomos Family
Public Forum with ACLU Illinois Legal Director Ben Wolf
All smiles with Pamela Watson and Ben Wolf

All smiles with Pamela Watson and Ben Wolf

On May 11 in the Parasol Room of Evanston City Hall, Rimland hosted the public forum “The Rights of Persons with Developmental Disabilities,” featuring American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois legal director Ben Wolf interviewed by Associate Cook County Circuit Court Judge Marty Moltz on legal policies, practices, and issues that affect adults with autism and other persons with developmental disabilities.

Rimland CEO Pamela Watson opened the event with brief remarks on Rimland and plans for the organization’s 45th anniversary before she introduced the two speakers. Pam and Ben met more than 30 years ago, when she worked in the ACLU Development Department and he had become the attorney for the then newly established ACLU Institutionalized Persons Project. Now, as ACLU of Illinois legal director, Ben supervises over 15 staff attorneys. A native of Evanston, Ben received his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He graduated cum laude from Boston College Law School and was an editor of the Boston College Law Review. He served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge James B. Moran in the Northern District of Illinois. Prior to joining the ACLU legal staff, Wolf was an attorney at Jenner & Block.

Judge Moltz interviews Ben Wolf

Judge Moltz interviews Ben Wolf

In her introductory remarks, Pam informed the audience that, while working at the ACLU, she had read Ben’s legal briefs regarding the mistreatment of the most helpless persons in society and that his legal writing and commitment inspired her to work for Rimland. She was also pleased to introduce Judge Moltz, a Rimland parent, as the evening’s interviewer. Pam asked Judge Moltz if it was true that, as a prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s Appellate office, he had briefed and argued before the appellate court and the Ilinois Supreme Court 1,700 times. Judge Moltz admitted that this was correct.

Judge Moltz’s first question to Ben Wolf concerned voting rights of adults with autism, a topic that is of interest during this year’s campaign season. Ben explained that persons with disabilities have the same voting rights and responsibilities as everyone else in Illinois. They must meet voter registration requirements, i.e., be a U.S. citizen, be 18 years old before the general election, live in the precinct at least 30 days prior to Election Day, and they must be registered. All of the same registration and identification requirements apply, whether in person, by mail, or online. Persons with disabilities can vote early, by mail, or at curbside if they have limited mobility or the voting location is not accessible (two election judges, one from each party, are to bring the ballot to the car). Those who need assistance with voting can be helped by any person they choose, as long as that person is not an employer or an officer of a union in which the voter is a member. Candidates cannot assist voters. No one is to try to influence the voter in any way. In response to a question about voter fraud, Ben explained that there is virtually no evidence of individual voter fraud. The issue of large scale vote tampering is a different problem.

Wolf took questions from the engaged audience.

Wolf took questions from the engaged audience.

In response to a subsequent question about voting rights, Ben explained that the ACLU has represented the interests of people in mental health centers, developmental centers, and institutions for children, such as group homes and foster homes. ACLU has won groundbreaking court-ordered reforms that have reduced caseloads, implemented better training for caseworkers and private agency staff, reorganized Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) systems of supervision and accountability, and protected adequate state funding.

Regarding the state budget crisis, Ben explained that Illinois governor Bruce Rauner threatened substantial reductions in state funding as part of his original proposed budget, including ending all services to youth in state custody between the ages of 18 and 21. Gov. Rauner currently seeks release from court oversight in various federal consent decrees to which the state of Illinois has agreed. The ACLU currently represents clients in five such consent decrees addressing care for children under the care of the DCFS, youths detained by the IL Department of Juvenile Justice, as well as people with intellectual, physical and psychiatric disabilities who want to live in community-based settings as opposed to large institutions. The latter are represented in a lawsuit filed by ACLU and Equip for Equality, Ligas v. Norwood.

Ligas, as it is known, challenges the unnecessary segregation and institutionalization of people with developmental disabilities in large, intermediate care facilities when they could be better served in smaller, community settings. In 2011, a court-approved settlement authorized all individuals represented in this case to move out of institutions and into community-based settings if they choose to do so. The settlement also permits 3,000 people living at home to receive community-based services over five years. A court-appointed monitor was assigned to work with the parties to ensure implementation of the agreement. (Under the Ligas litigation, Rimland and other autism service organizations are still receiving state funding.)

While there have been some deficiencies in implementing the agreement, nearly 2,000 class members have been offered community services, with hundreds of additional individuals moving out of large institutions. The ACLU continues to advocate on behalf of clients entitled to the protections of the consent decree, including ensuring adequate services and placements.

In response to questions about Prioritization of Urgency of Need for Services (PUNS), Ben explained that PUNS is a database of people in Illinois with developmental disabilities who need services and who may need help from the government to pay for those services. Inclusion in the PUNS database is the first step toward individuals receiving those services, including residence in group homes. If someone is not on the PUNS list, s/he is not on the waiting list for services. Additionally, those who have completed PUNS applications must keep their status updated annually for a chance of receiving services.

In response to an audience member’s reminder that there is not enough money to give everyone in Illinois the services they need, Ben acknowledged that there are people working on a fair way to choose who gets paid by the state. He explained that Illinois must pay hard costs, like pension payments, before funding other services, like education and public safety. The ACLU is prepared to go back to court to force the state to live up to its obligations and fund services for persons with developmental disabilities. However, Ben reminded those in attendance, without more tax revenue, the state could one day run out of money and there would be no recourse.

The collegial repartee between Judge Moltz and Attorney Wolf was particularly enjoyable for listeners. After the event, audience members expressed appreciation that Ben Wolf can explain complex legal matters in language non-lawyers can understand.

The next public forum, which will be on the topic of guardianship, is planned for August 2016. An announcement with specific details is forthcoming.