From Carolina Legal Assistance (CLA) to Disability Rights North Carolina
Our history begins with the formation of Carolina Legal Assistance (CLA) in 1977. CLA was a nonprofit legal services organization. Their mission was to provide policy advocacy, litigation, training, and individual assistance to people with mental disabilities.
However, CLA started as a special project of the Wake County Bar Association called Legal Services for Mental Patients. The program’s mission was:
To empower and advocate for people with mental disabilities in achieving true freedom of choice and quality services in the least restrictive environment.
Shortly thereafter the program was re-named Carolina Legal Assistance for the Mentally Handicapped and eventually changed to Carolina Legal Assistance (CLA). Originally funded by the American Bar Association Commission on the Mentally Disabled, CLA affiliated with Legal Services of North Carolina in 1978.
CLA’s mission statement shifted. The revised mission was:
To represent poor persons within the legal system in order for persons to assert their rights and to obtain and exert power to effect institutional change.
As CLA worked to effect positive change, the organization itself grew and changed. In 1996 CLA cut ties with with legal services funding and became an independent agency. The revised vision of CLA was to create and improve access to appropriate services and treatment for children and adults with mental disabilities through individual and systems advocacy. CLA’s mission statement evolved as well, becoming:
To use legal and social advocacy to create and improve access for children and adults with mental disabilities to appropriate services, entitlements, and treatment.
CLA was a primary advocacy authority and a respected member of the disability community for more than 30 years.
For decades, North Carolina’s Protection and Advocacy (P&A) system was the Governor’s Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities (GACPD). GACPD was an agency of state government. For years, disability rights stakeholders in North Carolina had advocated for an independent P&A – separate from State government. In 2005, Governor Mike Easley started the process to close GACPD and designate the P&A to an independent nonprofit agency. CLA’s history is one full of change and evolution. With the assistance of Vicki Smith, CLA applied to be and was approved as the new P&A in North Carolina. It opened its doors as the P&A for North Carolina on July 1, 2007.
As North Carolina’s P&A, CLA’s mission expanded.
This broader scope of work encompassed more types of disability and addressed more issues facing the disability community. To better reflect this broader mission, Carolina Legal Assistance changed its name to Disability Rights North Carolina and became a member of the National Disability Rights Network.
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.