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Portage Manor plaintiffs settle suit against county for cash to help with future travel costs

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St. Joseph County will pay four Portage Manor residents cash settlements, ending their lawsuit that alleged the county and state of Indiana have violated multiple federal laws by closing the home for the poor and disabled.

The four residents who sued, along with county and state attorneys, had been scheduled for a day-long evidentiary hearing Tuesday in South Bend federal court before U.S. District Judge Damon Leichty. The residents’ attorneys, Kent Hull and Shaw Friedman, were ready to present evidence, including testimony from experts and residents’ families.

But late Monday the county offered the residents a cash settlement in exchange for dropping their complaint. So instead of a hearing on the law in open court, the sides negotiated behind closed doors for several hours Tuesday.

The county will pay the four residents up to a combined $195,000, money that’s meant to pay their travel costs when the residents must be placed in homes outside of Michiana. Friedman afterward had this to say.

“I think we’re very satisfied, as is the county, that we reached an appropriate, amicable solution,” Friedman said. “And what we’re at least encouraged about is that this resolution provides assurance for continuity of care for all these residents that we represented, and also allows us a trigger and ability to monitor going forward.”

That last bit was a reference to part of the settlement agreement that requires the county to provide the residents’ attorneys with a regularly updated chart showing where each Portage Manor resident ends up being placed.

Roy Saenz, who has power of attorney over his uncle, a Portage Manor resident, would receive the largest payment of $60,000. That’s based on the cost of him staying for six to 10 months at a private-pay facility because he doesn’t qualify for public assistance.

“So it’s a Band-Aid until we can get his payor sources changed and hopefully qualify for different payor sources,” Saenz said. “Unfortunately if he does not qualify for those payor sources at the end of that then we will have to rethink the strategy for his care.”

The settlement will stop Hull’s attempts to get the lawsuit certified as a class-action case. That would have been a difficult case to make because class action status requires similarly affected plaintiffs, but most Portage Manor residents already have been relocated. Still, Hull said the cash settlements will provide a real help to the affected residents.

“We knew it was a very difficult issue to bring to court,” Hull said. “I don’t think we would have seen any kind of settlement like this without the litigation.”

Saenz is glad the money will help the family pay for his uncle’s housing and care for now. But he wasn’t taking much joy in the settlement, which means the lawsuit failed in its primary goal: to stop Portage Manor’s closure for the sake of the community’s present and future needs.

“It’s a loss for the community,” Saenz said. “Losing 144 (Residential Care Assistance Program) beds and ability to pay at $60 a day, private pay, and receive the services that individuals did at Portage Manor is an extremely huge loss for the community.”

Matt Costello is director of protective services at Logan, the nonprofit that helps adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Costello has been scrambling to find new homes for five Portage Manor residents who are wards of Logan.

As of Tuesday, he’d found placements for three of the five, and he was pleased to hear Tuesday that a fourth client was approved for state funding that will pay for his housing in a group home. Costello still needs to find a home for a female client by July 31, and he won’t have time to find one close to home.

“I don’t understand this hard deadline of the 31st,” Costello said. “So she’ll be far away from her community and her guardian and her doctor, and she’s just going to have to start over in a new place far away.”

County commissioners Carl Baxmeyer and Derek Dieter, who voted for the closure, picked July 31 as the closure date, and state officials agreed to it.

Baxmeyer and Dieter recently issued a press release promising that they won’t close Portage Manor on July 31 if there are any residents still in need of relocation by then. At the same time, WVPE has obtained a copy of a letter they sent to all guardians of the home’s residents, threatening to report them to Adult Protective Services if they don’t find them new homes by the 31st.

The settlement agreement states that if a single plaintiff fails to move out by July 31, the county is relieved of all obligations of the settlement agreement.

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).