In 1977, the Wake County Bar Association created Legal Services for Mental Patients, a special project dedicated to representing patients in the state’s psychiatric hospitals. The program was later renamed Carolina Legal Assistance.
CLA’s staff served people who, because of the intertwining disadvantages of disability and poverty, were lost in the institutional, mental health, and developmental disability service systems. They pursued multi-disciplined legal strategies consisting of public education and training, litigation, and public policy advocacy.
CLA’s innovative and dogged advocacy dramatically changed the way mental health services are delivered in North Carolina. Its work included impact litigation on behalf of prison inmates, children with mental disabilities and behavior challenges who received inadequate services (the Willie M. case), and individuals with intellectual disabilities who were unnecessarily kept in psychiatric hospitals (the Thomas S. case). North Carolina put millions of dollars into services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities because of these litigation efforts.
Deborah Greenblatt was CLA’s executive director for more than two decades. The organization’s accomplishments and ability to survive judicial and political set-backs were due in large part to her leadership and talent. Debbie was the mother of a child with significant disabilities and a uniquely gifted attorney. She became a role model for many legal professionals and disability advocates.
In addition to her litigation efforts, Debbie nurtured and created coalitions. She was a founding partner of the Special Needs Federation, a coalition of advocates who provided a unified voice for children with special education needs. She was also the founding parent of the Victims with Disabilities Task Force, another multidisciplinary coalition committed to improving services and ensuring justice for victims with disabilities.
In 2005, Governor Easley signed into law the “Deborah Greenblatt Act,” a law that established important protections for children regarding the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools. Debbie was primarily responsible for bringing together the coalition that drafted and secured passage of the law.
On June 13, 2005 – a month before Deborah Greenblatt Act was enacted – Debbie died from breast cancer. North Carolina’s disability community lost a true hero with her passing. Her successes were legendary, and her life continues to serve as an inspiration to those who fight for the rights of people with disabilities.