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Task force to weigh future of Sonoma Developmental Center



Kathleen Miller is desperately afraid that her disabled son could not survive outside the Sonoma Developmental Center.

She previously tried moving Dan Smith, who is 46 and has autism and bipolar disorder, into board-and-care homes. Both times he was kicked out.

Kathleen Miller and her son Dan Smith, who lives at the Sonoma Developmental Center on Friday, May 31, 2013 near Glen Ellen. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

Kathleen Miller and her son Dan Smith, who lives at the Sonoma Developmental Center on Friday, May 31, 2013 near Glen Ellen. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

“It was horrible,” said Miller, 67, who lives just north of Santa Rosa.

Her son’s future and that of 1,510 of California’s most vulnerable residents is on the line with a new task force that will recommend whether the state’s four developmental centers are still viable or should be scrapped.

California’s Health and Human Services Agency is leading the effort, which again confronts the long-standing dilemma of where best to care for people whose disabilities are so profound they require constant and expensive monitoring.

Developmental centers are saddled with aging infrastructure, declining populations and, in the case of the facility in Sonoma Valley, loss of federal funding related to problems that include patient abuse.

But community-care options, as Miller can attest, aren’t a panacea.

“This has been the only home they’ve known,” Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the developmental center, said of the nearly 500 people who reside at the facility, the largest of its kind in the state. “It’s just not safe for them to be in these group homes or community care centers.”

The demise of developmental centers has long been predicted in California. Advocates of keeping the institutions open are particularly worried in this instance by the timing of the task force and its stated mission, which includes setting a “timeline for future closures.”

The panel was created following media reports detailing graphic examples of abuse at the state’s developmental centers and the failure of law enforcement to properly investigate the crimes. The Sonoma center has given up federal funding for 112 seriously disabled patients amid investigations into problems at the troubled facility.

In an effort to correct the problems and restore that funding, the center has entered into a federally approved performance improvement plan

Karen Faria, the center’s new executive director, declined comment through a spokesman. In a May 22 letter to staff obtained by The Press Democrat, she wrote that the task force does not change the center’s mission.

“All the staff of Sonoma have lived and worked through some hard times lately and I am confident that, despite the unpredictable future we face, we all will continue our commitment to the people we serve,” she wrote.

A spokesman for the state’s Health and Human Services Agency also declined to say whether the task force is a clear indication the state is moving to shut developmental centers.

To Miller, it seems obvious.

“I think the task force is another notch in that direction,” she said.

Nevertheless, Miller, who is president of the center’s Parent Hospital Association, accepted a personal invitation from Diana Dooley, secretary of the state Health Agency, to be a member of the panel.

“Am I going to say, ‘No,’ in having a voice in helping to shape the future? Please. No way. I have to do that,” she said.

The task force will begin meeting no later than June 15 and is supposed to wrap up by Nov. 15.

State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she understands why those who have loved ones at developmental centers might look askance at the task force.

“I understand their concerns and fears, but I do think it (the task force) is an appropriate thing to do to have stakeholders involved in making some recommendations,” she said.

Evans, who is a member of the Senate Human Services Committee, said it is “important” to continue to provide services to residents of developmental centers and to do so in communities where their families reside.

“Whether it has to be in a state hospital or not, that’s a whole different story,” she said.

The Eldridge facility is Sonoma Valley’s largest employer with a workforce of about 1,200 and an operating budget of about $146 million for this fiscal year. It has been a community fixture since 1891.

In 1965, the Legislature, alarmed at conditions in state institutions, created two pilot programs, known as regional centers, for providing community services in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The program expanded to 21 regional centers in 1977 with the idea that the developmentally disabled should be cared for in the “least restrictive” setting.

The exodus into community care continued through 1990, when William Coffelt of Vallejo sued the state after his 11-year-old son, Billy, was found in a pool of his own blood in a shower stall at the Sonoma center. The state settled the suit in 1993 by agreeing to move 2,000 people out of institutions within five years, cutting the population by one-third and closing centers in Stockton and Camarillo.

The population at developmental centers has steadily declined since then, from 6,544 in 1992 to 1,510 today.

At the same time, the cost to treat patients has soared, from an average of $162,000 per resident in 2001 to $300,000 today. Advocates of the centers argue that’s because the facilities treat the most difficult cases.

Gorin said, “We should do whatever it takes to keep the (Sonoma) developmental center in operation as long as possible.” She also acknowledged having discussions about what to do with the property should the center be closed or scaled back. She declined to identify those taking part in the conversations.

Gorin toured the property on which the center is located on April 6 with representatives from several environmental groups that have long eyed the property for its proximity to Jack London State Historic Park and the Sonoma County Regional Park next to Highway 12.

“I think it’s important for community groups to come together to envision what we might plan for in the future,” Gorin said. She plans to tour the medical and housing facilities later this month.

Megan Gordon, a longtime psychiatric technician at the Sonoma center, said she’s not worried about the center closing and she and her co-workers losing their jobs.

“We provide very specific services that can’t be duplicated,” she said. “I think we’re going to be here for awhile.”

7 Responses to “Task force to weigh future of Sonoma Developmental Center”

  1. Fn says:

    Task force? Carlos Flores, executive director of San Diego Regional Center is on the “task force” yet, he’s the SAME Regional Center director who has fought a family of a severely autistic adult, from getting the support he needs at his home, so he doesn’t end up in a state institution. Failing to provide the in home supports this autistic adult needs, as per his doctors has placed this autistic adult in harm’s way, yet the same Regional Center Director who supports denying adequate services to this autistic adult, is the SAME man, who was appointed to a “task force” to figure out how to help the disabled transfer from the state instituions to the community.

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  2. Barry Xavier says:

    A hot mess. Who the hell is working in these agencies that are supposed to be “think tanks” to help the disabled population. From what I hear, most these employees are working their cozy state jobs at Department of Developmental Services, while spending hours and Facebook, doing their taxes on line, and working on their “on line” schooling. No wonder this state is in such a mess when it comes to gettting problems solved. We got ourselves a whole lotta lazy inept people up in there in our state agencies supposed to be helping our most needy people. Shame shame. Who is gonna be tough enough to clean house? Who gonna be the one who catches these lazy good for nothing people working in our state system, taking advantage of their jobs and not doing their job?

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  3. DaiseyM says:

    Let’s face the truth. If the developmentally disabled are kicked out of state institutions, then we see group homes run by health and human services and social services scrambling to provide basic medical and behavioral needs these consumers needs, and we’ve all seen how INEPT the people working in these agencies that are intended “to help” the disabled really are…….so that leaves us with the dilemma of HOW will we care for all these displaced state residential clients? WHERE will they go? WHO will take care of them? NOBODY is asking these questions….

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  4. Tommy F says:

    California wants to CLOSE the developmental centers, yet the 21 Regional Ceners can’t even meet the needs of autistic adults who are already OUT of institutions and in dire need of HOME CARE SUPPORTS> Autistic persons in California who need nursing care supports to live at home have been forced to accept out of home placements in violation of Lanterman Act. This practice must stop, as parents of autistic persons with epilepsy have a right to have the supports and services they need to keep their autistic children or adults at HOME.

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  5. Snarky says:

    Has the “task force” been air-dropped into Sonoma County, yet?

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  6. Snarky says:

    “Task FORCE” ???

    Melodramatic reporting at best.

    How about calling it what it really is for better reporting: a committee.

    Nothing more than a routine group of people working to find a solution.


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  7. Steveguy says:

    Was anyone jailed for the abuse ? Nope, they still get paid or are collecting pensions.

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