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Nickles excited about appointment of Nuss

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty introduced Laura Nuss on Wednesday morning as the new director of the D.C. Department on Disability Services. But it was D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles who seemed especially jazzed about the news.

"I'm EXCITED!" Nickles shouted into the microphone set up outside DDS headquarters on 15th St. NW.

No wonder. As the city's chief lawyer, Nickles been leading the effort to end a class action lawsuit against the District over its care of people with developmental disabilities, and Nuss, DDS's deputy director, has been the agency's point person on the court case.

Now, Nuss will be leading the entire agency, replacing Judith E. Heumann, who has headed the agency since April 2007 and stepped down to take a post at the State Department, where she will be the special adviser on international disability rights.

Nuss won't have much of a honeymoon. On Wednesday afternoon, she and other city officials will be in federal court for a hearing in the class action case, which was filed 34 years ago and is known today as Evans v. Fenty. Just last month, the judge in the case, Ellen Segal Huvelle, rejected the city's bid to bring the case to a close.

But Huvelle is likely to welcome the news that Heumann's replacement is Nuss. Even as Huvelle has criticized DDS, she has on more than one occasion praised Nuss's efforts. Huvelle has even proposed, to no avail, that Nuss take on a court-appointed role of ensuring the agency's compliance with longstanding court mandates.

DDS, created as a cabinet level agency in March 2007 to replace the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, coordinates services for disabled residents of the District. Among them are hundreds of developmentally disabled people who were residents of Forest Haven, a city-run institution in Laurel that was the original target of the Evans lawsuit and that was ordered closed in the early 1990s.

Ending Evans and other class actions over child welfare, mental health and other social services has been one of the Fenty Administration's top legal priorities. Even as he called the agency's employees "heroic," the attorney general cautioned that hard work remains ahead.

"We have a ways to go," Nickles said.

Nuss, he said, will need the help of everyone at DDS. "This is important. We cannot let our people down. Laura will be great but she will need the help of all of you every day seven days a week."

Nuss brings not only extensive professional experience but personal ties to the world of disabilities. Her mother had polio and struggled with physical disabilities all her life, and an aunt was developmentally disabled and relied on Nuss to serve as her personal representative.

With Wednesday's annoucement, the search will begin for a successor to Nuss, who had been the head of DDS's Developmental Disabilities Administration since August 2007. That won't be the only search Nuss has to manage. A resident of Takoma Park, she must move into the District within 180 days and is looking for a home in the city, mayoral spokeswoman Kate Stanton said.
--Henri Cauvin

By Washington Post editors  |  May 12, 2010; 1:48 PM ET
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