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HELENA — A 7-year-old civil rights class action lawsuit contending developmentally disabled Montanans are illegally institutionalized was settled this week when the state agreed to move 45 people out of the state institution in Boulder by the end of 2007.

The state and the Montana Advocacy Program (MAP), which provided Helena lawyer Andree Larose for the plaintiffs, announced an agreement Thursday that will give developmentally disabled people more opportunities to live in communities instead of institutions.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby in Great Falls gave her preliminary approval to the agreement late Wednesday.

‘‘As Americans, we've evolved to realize that people with disabilities are just like everyone else,'' said Bernie Franks-Ongoy, executive director of MAP. ‘‘Instead of segregating people in an institution, you make it happen so they can live in the community like we do.''

This suit, called the Travis D. case after one of the 18 named plaintiffs, tracks a national trend of deinstitutionalizing the developmentally disabled.

Since the 1970s, the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder has seen its patient population fall from 1,000 residents to 90 as people transitioned to community-based services. And a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandated the integration of developmentally disabled people into communities when appropriate.

‘‘To us, this is a landmark day because it continues the evolution of developmentally disabled services,'' said Joe Mathews, administrator of the Disability Services Division in the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Larose, who represented more than 200 people in the class action suit, said the agreement enables individuals, some of whom have been institutionalized since childhood, to lead full lives.

‘‘If given a chance and given the tools they need, people with even the most significant developmental disabilities experience growth and happiness as contributing members of society,'' Larose said. ‘‘In fact, according to some studies, they make the greatest strides.''

The state will move 45 residents — about half the institution's current population — out of the Boulder facility by Dec. 31, 2007. The first 13 residents will be moved into community settings by March 31, 2005.

Despite the emigration, the Montana Developmental Center will not close, Mathews said.

The Boulder institution will continue to serve people with severe behavioral problems and those who are a danger to themselves and others, Mathews added.

And before residents move out, they will be evaluated by staff for their ability and desire to leave. Some people have lived in Boulder most of their lives, Ongoy said, and have no place else to call home.

‘‘Some people, they're scared,'' Ongoy said. ‘‘But we're not going to force anyone to move out. It's going to be people who want to move out.''

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Residents will be moved into different living situations based on their ability to adapt and the availability of services. Some will likely end up in group homes, others with similarly situated roommates, others in apartments of their own, he added.

Existing mental health providers in Montana are expected to draft proposals and bid on the new business, Mathews said. He said providers in larger cities like Missoula, Billings, Butte and Helena are likely to come forward with proposals.

State officials don't expect to spend much more money on community-based services for the developmentally disabled people released from Boulder. The money, Mathews said, will just be spent differently.

The settlement does require the state to provide $200,000 annually for crisis prevention and intervention services designed to reduce the number of crisis admissions to the Boulder facility. The state must hire a consultant to ease the transition.

Another provision of the settlement will call on the 2005 Legislature to eliminate a statutory provision that allows for the institutionalization of those who need ‘‘near total care.''

The state currently serves about 4,000 developmentally disabled people. After notice is given to those affected by the settlement, a fairness hearing scheduled for May 13 in Helena will give them the opportunity to comment on or object to the settlement.

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