Alisha Gupta

Shashi Gupta talks to her daughter, Alisha, at Central Virginia Training Center  on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. Alisha, who celebrated her 18th birthday in August, has been a resident at the Madison Heights facility for 15 years. 

For Alisha Gupta, who will soon turn 19, home has been the Centra Virginia Training Center since 2003. Her parents, Shashi and Atul, live in Lynchburg and have been able to help care for their severely disabled daughter almost every day since she went to live at CVTC 16 years ago.

But the closure of the training center is growing ever closer, and Alisha, who’s one of the last CVTC residents, will soon be moved to Hiram Davis Medical Center in Petersburg, another state facility operated for Virginians with severe physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. Though Petersburg is hours away, the Guptas have agreed to have their child transferred, something parents and guardians of other CVTC residents have fought tooth and nail.

(The closure of Virginia’s residential hospitals and training centers is part of a settlement the federal Department of Justice reached with the administration of then-Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2012. Virginia proposed closing the facilities with the operational savings going toward paying for community-based care in group homes.)

But one thing of utmost importance to the Guptas is that their daughter’s care adhere to the standards of the Jain Hindu faith they’ve raised her in. One of those is a dietary standard of “a strict lacto-vegetarian [diet]” that is consumed by hand. Staff at CVTC have formulated just a natural diet for Alisha and have fed it to her by hand.

But that could change dramatically once she’s at Hiram Davis, and her parents have filed suit to protect their daughter’s First Amendment rights.

In September 2018, Hiram Davis staff informed the family she would be put on a synthetic diet fed to her by a machine, the exact opposite of what they were told a year earlier. Alisha has been on her natural diet, devised and administered by CVTC staff, since 2003. It’s a diet she’s thrived on for years, her doctors say.

Responding to the Guptas’ suit, the state claims a lack of standing under the 2012 settlement for either the Guptas or their daughter even to file the suit at all. Lawyers for the state also contend the Guptas’ dietary requests are “based on motivation other than her sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Why state officials would deny Alisha Gupta her diet and force on her synthetic food administered by a feeding machine is unfathomable to us ... and the Guptas. “It comes to a point you don’t want your daughter destroyed,” Gupta said. “They left me no choice [but to file suit].”

The diet was devised by medical and dietary staff at CVTC years ago and fed to Alisha in such a way so as to comply with her and her family’s religious beliefs. Why is its continuation now deemed impossible by the staff at Hiram Davis? The Guptas have no answers from the state, other than lawyers contending the diet “advances compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of accommodating any religious practice [Gupta] may have.”

The federal suit is scheduled for a bench trial in April 2020, but we have a suggestion for two of the most powerful individuals listed among the defendants — Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia Secretary of Health Dan Carey (the former chief medical officer of Centra): Settle the matter now. Stop fighting and let this family direct the medical care of their child. And adhere to the protocols that have been in place at CVTC for years. Don’t make this trying time for any family even more so by state intransigence.

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