Change needed at SDC
The regulatory cloud hanging over the Sonoma Developmental Center, and threatening its federal funding, reflects both a longstanding failure by the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) to address glaring deficiencies in the institution’s level of care, and the consequences of what we can only conclude is a long history of insufficient staffing.
Both these problems, along with the historic failure of the state’s Office of Protective Services (OPS) to adequately investigate cases of abuse, rape and possible homicide, reflect either the unwillingness or the inability to take corrective action for years.
The tragedy of that failure is compounded by the shadow it casts on the noble, sometimes heroic efforts of psychiatric technicians and other caregivers to serve the profoundly vulnerable, frequently difficult and sometimes dangerous residents in their care. The vast majority of SDC staff are dedicated to the safety and comfort of their clients, but their work is overshadowed by the failures of a few.
And it’s not as though recent revelations of abuse and lapses in the level of care come as a great surprise. Psychiatric technicians have complained loudly and publicly that staffing cuts triggered by the state budget crisis have made it substantially more difficult to maintain adequate levels of care. And double-shift overtime records – topping 29,000 hours in just one month (October 2009) – reveal how understaffed the facility has been.
The failings of the OPS, the state police force managed by DDS, have been known and reported for years and, at least for a time, appeared to reflect interference from the top levels of DDS.
In 2004, the former OPS police chief at SDC – Ed Contreras – was so disturbed by the levels of abuse he discovered that he went public, accusing the administration of withholding evidence at crime scenes and interfering with investigations. In one tragic case, a 25-year-old SDC resident died after somehow ingesting three plastic-handled glycerin swabs, a highly suspicious cause of death since he was a quadriplegic.
A subsequent investigation by a state legislator corroborated Contreras’ complaints, but he was demoted and denied opportunities for advancement. He then won an EEOC ruling that his civil rights had been violated and he accepted a $950,000 settlement from the state. In a letter to the Index-Tribune in 2005, Contreras wrote, “The one puzzling thing is that no SDC or DDS administrator was held accountable for their actions. Those who were involved are still employed at the facility or in Sacramento or have been promoted.”
We don’t mean to hold SDC and DDS perpetually responsible for sins of the past – we know there are ongoing improvements and that staffing levels have increased some lately, a hopeful sign. But to repeatedly discover that conditions revealed almost a decade ago have not been resolved, that the incompetence of (or the constraints on) OPS were not definitively addressed, and that the standards set for receipt of Medi-Cal and Medicare funds have been continuously violated, demands a wholesale change in the administrative management of SDC.
Nothing less will be enough.