A broader perspective on abuse at SDC
There have been several articles recently in the news about possible abuse that has occurred at Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). Sadly, these articles create negative impressions about the dedicated employees who work at SDC, the families who choose the center for their loved ones and for the residents who live there.
I therefore feel it is important for me, as president of the Parent Hospital Association (PHA), that represents friends and families of SDC residents, to provide a broader and, I believe, more accurate picture of SDC and of the issues involved.
The Dec. 4 California Watch article in the Index-Tribune focused on a previous resident identified with a pseudonym as “Jennifer.” She came to Sonoma Developmental Center because the alternative placement – Sierra Vista, in Yuba City – had been closed by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). Sierra Vista specialized in treating higher functioning individuals who also had behavior issues or mental illness.
Sierra Vista was closed quickly by DDS, with little advanced warning, after the lease ran out. Apparently, DDS made a decision not to renew the lease and therefore created a hasty rationale for closure.
Following the closure of Sierra Vista, some of the residents who were not ready for community living came to SDC, Jennifer among them. These higher-functioning Sierra Vista residents represented new and different challenges for most SDC staff. Some had serious behavioral issues, including aggression, self-injurious behaviors and the habit of making frequent allegations of abuse by staff and others.
I mention this because almost all of the alleged sexual abuse cases that occurred at SDC occurred in the residence that housed these new residents. The higher-functioning residents did not relate well to the existing, lower-functioning SDC residents. The new arrivals represented new challenges to staff and they were challenged by a new and unfamiliar environment, including staff they did not know or trust.
Jennifer’s clinical picture included some troubled behaviors. She had self-abusive incidents and got into altercations with other residents. She was also placed on a medication that increased her tendency to bruise. Frequent bruising resulted, and staff was often unclear about the exact source of her bruises. She also would become manic and would verbalize all sorts of things, including allegations directed at different individuals. The recent article made much about some bruises that appeared on Jennifer’s breasts. It is important to note, however, that all of the bruising incidents and allegations were reported and documented. If the bruises had not been reported, no one would ever have known about them, much less been able to write about them.
When bruises occurred on Jennifer’s breasts that could have been inflicted by someone else, staff not only reported it, but the case was referred to the Office of Protective Services (OPS) for investigation. It is the responsibility of the staff to report all injuries, allegations and suspected abuse. It is the role of the administration to remove any staff suspected of abuse from all client contact and refer the case to licensing and OPS.
While the source of “Jennifer’s” bruises was never clear, efforts were made to deal with her behaviors of self abuse and to separate her from other residents where fighting was an issue. An alarm was also placed on the door to her room to alert staff if anyone entered.
It is clear that Jennifer became pregnant, but it was never clear who was responsible for the pregnancy. While it is tempting to place blame on the janitor who left the country shortly after the pregnancy was discovered, nothing about this case is conclusive. SDC staff volunteered DNA samples but the DNA was not run. According to the recent article, the time frame of her home visits suggests that the attack took place at SDC, but even that is inconclusive. Medical personnel did not agree on the timeline. The birth took place in late October. She had a home visit in mid-February.
The only thing clear in the case is the fact that Jennifer was the victim of sexual assault. But the California Watch article suggests the picture is black and white. The impression left is that SDC staff are complicit in frequent cover ups, and that the SDC administration was suppressing investigations. That picture makes good copy, but the truth suffers in the process.
Nonetheless, despite a lack of clarity in such incidents of abuse, it is important to take them seriously. Real abuse does occur. There are real villains among those who work with developmentally disabled individuals and real mistakes are made. SDC families have always taken comfort in the fact that even the smallest incidents get reported at SDC. If any staff person is even suspected of misconduct, they are removed from client contact.
But the families are not told what happens when cases are turned over for investigation. And sometimes our response has been, “What do we care? The person responsible is gone. The problem is solved.” In such cases, the sad fact is, we were wrong.
The California Watch articles have at least alerted legislators, staff and families that investigations do matter. Clearly, problems with these investigations existed and may still exist. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the district attorney and OPS do not work together to solve crimes against the residents at SDC. Instead, they spend time blaming each other for the failure of the system to act effectively. In many cases, OPS has not collected evidence in a timely manner and the words of individuals with developmental disabilities are discounted.
To put it simply, investigations are botched at every level. Those who commit crimes against our loved ones are allowed to go free and may even collect pensions. Jennifer’s case is no exception. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office decided not to run the DNA and handed it back to the state because it was too expensive and too low a priority to address. The SDC executive director requested that the DNA samples be run and paid for by the state Department of Developmental Services (DDS).
DDS decided to not move forward. This is clearly outrageous. Not only is the person responsible allowed to go free, but the innocent staff members now have a shadow of suspicion cast over them.
Finally, the possibility exists that one of the Sonoma staff was the guilty party and is still working at SDC among our vulnerable loved ones. Only when society decides that abuse to developmentally disabled individuals must not be tolerated will change occur. Meanwhile, all members of the disabled community are at risk, no matter where they live.
Another related issue that makes preventing abuse so difficult, is the keeping of secrets by many involved. Under the guise of confidentiality (needed on behalf of those living in certain settings) all manner of unrelated issues are thrown onto the “secret” pile. Many things that should not be kept secret are. Families are told they cannot know the status of investigations due to legal issues. Public records requests are delayed, and when information is released, it is often impossible to understand or is simply incorrect.
No one on the outside of a developmental center is given any information, and staff are told not to talk to anyone outside the centers. It is as though there is a belief that, if no one knows about a problem, it never happened.
The mandate for secrecy comes from the very top and the sad fact is that nothing will change for the better until the issues are in the open. That includes complex issues like the sexuality of individuals with developmental disabilities; sexual and other abuse of developmentally disabled individuals; unmet housing needs; unmet medical needs, and more. All these need to be seen in the light of day.
Solutions will only become available if meaningful discussion between the stakeholders can take place with knowledge about needs – both met and unmet.
My fear is that the California Watch articles, instead of driving more discussion and solutions, will cause the veil of secrecy around these issues to be drawn tighter, that staff who now speak out about abuse and other issues will be too afraid to do so.
In a culture of secrets, abuse can go unreported and finally, unnoticed.
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Kathleen Miller is president of the Parent Hospital Association at Sonoma Developmental Center. Her son is a patient at the facility.