SDC: an insiders’ perspective
Katrise Fraund sometimes hesitates when someone asks her where she works.
“There’s nothing like having someone ask you where you work, and you say SDC (Sonoma Developmental Center), and they say, ‘Is that where they rape people?,” she sighs, obviously annoyed that the actions of a few bad employees have damaged public opinion of the historic institution.
“I wish they understood how hard people work to make things better. I wish they saw all the good work that goes on there.”
Fraund has been a senior psychiatric technician at SDC for 12 years, but has spent more than 25 years working with the developmentally disabled at state centers and places such as Becoming Independent and People First. When she thinks of SDC, she thinks of her fellow staff bending over backwards to track down Beatles swag for a client who loves the British pop band’s music. She thinks of teaching a fashion-forward client how to climb a step-stool to access his clothes so he can dress himself. She thinks of the time spent helping another client write to her cousin.
“Her cousin went to China, so we made sure she had a map of China so she could see where that was,” Fraund smiles. “People really care about their clients and know what their clients need.”
Recent reports of sexual and physical abuse, largely revealed by the investigative journalism of California Watch, have painted a grim picture of the Valley’s largest employer. The state has given the center until Friday, Jan. 4, to correct dozens of “deficiencies,” including several deemed to pose “immediate jeopardy to resident health and safety.” If it does not fix myriad problems identified in reports in July and again in December, SDC stands to lose its federal funding in the Intermediate Care Facility (ICF), which includes a majority of patients and would result in a financial lose of roughly $117,000 a day.
Fraund admits bad things have happened at SDC, but is quick to point out many other developmental facilities, hospitals and even the Boy Scouts of America have had their scandals, their bad apples.
“These things happen all over the place. There are bad people everywhere, I wish there weren’t, but there are,” she said. Her voice breaks with emotion when she says, “There are lots of employees there, I don’t know what they’re all doing.”
SDC employs around 1,400 people, including 562 psychiatric technicians who handle all of the day-to-day care, from personal hygiene to administering medication to taking clients around the facility for their daily activities. The work is grueling both mentally and physically. The techs are charged with caring for patients with a wide scope of disabilities that impact communication, behavior and cognitive function, and many clients are incapacitated and must be lifted or assisted to interact with their environment.
“We have a lot of techs who are out on workers comp,” Fraund said, explaining that she herself has been off work since March due to a persistent shoulder injury that makes it impossible for her to lift patients.
She said state legislators contributed to the failures at SDC. When the state financial crisis hit in 2009-10, budgets were slashed at SDC and other developmental centers, forcing the center to lay off dozens of staff, and enact furlough days and forced overtime.
“You may end up working six overtime days a month,” Fraund said, explaining that there are state requirements on how many staff must be on duty at the 24/7 care facility. So when staff was cut, remaining employees had to pick up the slack, leading to higher rates of injury and general exhaustion. Plus, staff members were more often floated between the nursing unit, where clients have extensive physical needs but fewer behavioral problems, and ICF, where most clients have a dual diagnosis of developmental and behavioral issues.
“The needs of the clients are significantly different on either side,” Fraund said. With lay-offs and staff shortages, “You end up with staff who are unfamiliar with those issues, those clients.”
This combination of issues helped create the cauldron where abuse could occur.
“It was just being tired and being short, and things happen, just like they do any other place,” she said, again emphasizing that the actions of a few do not define the majority. “I really don’t believe you could find people who work harder to serve their clients.”
Fraund said despite what she calls “staff burn-out,” she regularly sees her colleagues go above and beyond the call of duty for their clients. On Christmas, when staffing levels are low, many volunteered to come in to pass out presents and spend time with the clients.
“They don’t have ancillary staff on holidays. So other staff will come in to do stuff like that, because they care,” she said.
The parents at SDC seem to agree. “There are so many wonderful, devoted people there doing a great job for the residents. For a lot of residents it’s the best place, and the only place, they’ve got,” Kathleen Miller, president of the Parent Hospital Association at SDC, said in a previous interview with The Index-Tribune.
Fraund insists things are getting better. SDC is hiring again, helping to alleviate the issue of “staff burn-out.” But she said the public could do more to get involved, which would benefit not only the clients’ mental well-being, but also their safety.
“The more eyes that are there, the more people see,” she said. “We don’t want to hide anything. We want people to see us and the good things we do.”
She said budget cutbacks have meant many of the festivals and community events SDC used to host no longer take place. It also means there is less money to take clients out of the facility, for field trips to the store or the county fair.
“There’s not a whole lot of money to make those things happen anymore, and the clients love them,” Fraund said. “It’s a big deal for them. To get to go out and buy a coat instead of looking through a catalogue, that’s a big deal.”
She said, aside from money, people can work with the clients in the center. Artists can teach classes, manicurists can do nail salons, massage therapists can offer hand massages. She stressed the importance of the clients feeling a part of a larger community.
“Our clients are a part of this community, although sometimes they’re a forgotten part,” she said. “I think that if people become more involved, they could see how much they could do.”
She said she is also hopeful the community supports SDC by contacting members of the legislature and letting them know the cost of budget cuts at high-level care facilities like SDC.
“I’d also like them to write their legislators and remind them of the good work we’re doing, because our guys don’t vote,” she said. “I really do think we are a good place. There are so many positive things that happen there.”
It’s a million tiny things that make a huge impact, she said. Like taking the time to find out if a non-verbal client likes salt and pepper on his eggs.
“If he can’t tell you yes or no, then you put some salt on one day. You put pepper on the next day, and you see which one he likes better,” she said. “It’s helping with the little things, that’s what psych techs do every day.”