Social worker sues Louisiana over respite care regulations

Ursula Newell-Davis cares deeply for those most in need in her New Orleans community. After two decades of working with special needs children, she decided to launch a company that would provide much-needed respite services to this vulnerable population. 

Inspired by her experience as a special needs parent herself, Newell-Davis wants to give these children hope that they can live productive, meaningful, and independent lives. But the state’s Facility Need Review process stopped her. 

So Newell-Davis is fighting back. 

After earning her bachelor and master’s degrees in social work, Newell-Davis has devoted her entire career to helping her New Orleans community. As a hospice social worker, she provided end-of-life support to patients and their families. Then she spent several years managing a behavioral health center that provides outpatient mental health services. 

In 2018, Newell-Davis started a consulting business to advise mental health agencies, schools, churches, and others who work with special needs populations. Through her work, she often encounters children who have poorer backgrounds or who are from homes where parents and caregivers often work odd hours or night shifts, which means that many of these children find themselves at home alone. Between the lack of supervision and their disabilities, some children struggle to complete such basic tasks as doing homework, preparing meals, or even bathing. She said she is particularly concerned that unsupervised teenagers with behavioral problems may fall in with the wrong crowd and turn to criminal activity. 

Ursula Newell-Davis

Believing that she could make a difference in her community, she decided to open a business to provide respite services to families with special needs children. She would provide services teaching children basic life skills to help them thrive and stay off the streets while their parents are away.  Louisiana requires providers to first apply for Facility Need Review approval, which means that the applicant must prove that the proposed services are “necessary.” 

Despite evidence showing an increase in crimes by juveniles, pleas by city officials for more early intervention efforts for juveniles, and studies showing that respite care can improve outcomes for both children and their families—including lower incidence of negative behavior in the community—state health officials denied Newell-Davis’s FNR application and prohibited her from starting her business.

In fact, she received the same denial form letter as 86 other applicants who had also hoped to launch such services in 2019 and 2020. 

“One of our goals at the Pelican Institute is to create a state for people to pursue the profession they choose without government getting in the way,” Sarah Harbison, the institute’s general counsel, told the Louisiana Record.

The facility need review, which is part of a two-step process for social-service providers who want to operate their own businesses, serves to protect the status quo and existing businesses, according to Harbison. Applicants who clear the FNR hurdle would next have to be licensed and prove their qualifications.

“It’s a violation of (Newell-Davis’) due-process and equal-protection rights under both (the state and federal) constitutions,” she said. “The state never considered her fitness or qualifications to provide the services she wants to provide.”

Mollie Riddle, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, said the treatment of Newell-Davis impinged on her economic liberty and right to earn a living.

According to the Pacific Legal Foundation, studies show that laws like FNR regulations do not protect health or safety; rather, they artificially reduce supply of critically necessary services, drive up costs, and worsen outcomes—all to protect existing businesses from competition. 

The Constitution protects the right to earn a living free of irrational and arbitrary government restrictions. Here attorney’s argue that the state cannot simply deny some people economic opportunity in order to insulate incumbent businesses from new competitors like Newell-Davis. 

In this federal lawsuit, Newell-Davis is standing up to government and advocating for children in her community who need her help, said attorneys. PLF, with assistance from the Pelican Institute, represents her free of charge. A win would vindicate her constitutional right to earn a living and create opportunities for others to join her in helping families in need. 

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