A sad chapter in Maine history closed Friday, when a judge ended court oversight of the former residents of the Pineland Center.

Today, many Mainers only know Pineland as an office park, a demonstration farm or a cross-country ski center. But for most of a century it was Maine’s public institution for people with developmental disabilities. the mid-1970s it was also known for abuse and neglect of the state’s most vulnerable citizens. A class action suit on behalf of Pineland residents led to the first consent decree, in which a special master was put in charge of making sure the state kept its promises to the residents.

This led to the policy shift, which brought people with mental retardation and other disabilities into home-like settings and allowed them to be active members of their communities. Pineland was eventually shut down for good in 1996.

 

U.S. District Court Judge George Singal’s decision to end the consent decree recognized that the state is meeting it’s responsibility to those people. He found that the court should not take permanent oversight on something that is really the responsibility of the executive and legislative branches of state government. Advocates, however, are concerned about the ruling — and they have a right to be. The state has failed to live up to its word to these people before, both when Pineland was operating and after the consent decree was signed, leading to a new decree in 1994.

During the last few months, when the state was asking to be released from the decree, it has also been cutting the budget for social service agencies that take care of former Pineland residents.

The progress made between 1978 and today is a testament to the hard work of consumers and their advocates, along with care providers, state officials and the courts. That hard work will have to continue without the special master’s oversight to avoid the kind of backsliding which Singal noted has been a problem in the past.

The end of the Pineland Consent Decree should be seen as a recognition that the state now better understands its obligation to people with disabilities and not as permission to set lower standards.

That way, this ruling can be seen as the end of a terrible chapter in our history, and not the beginning of another.