SDC forum opens dialogue
PANEL MEMBERS, from left, Phil Bronstein, Ryan Gabrielson, Coby Pizzotti, Kathleen Miller and Jim Shorter listen to questions from the audience.
An audience comprised largely of current and former staff of the Sonoma Developmental Center, parents and family members of residents and Glen Ellen neighbors turned out Wednesday night to participate in an open community forum and panel discussion on the future of SDC.
The crowd of more than 140 showed up to weigh in and offer support, suggestions and feedback on the future of the developmental center, marking the first of any such public forum on the fate of the facility.
For more than a century, the campus that is now home to SDC has been a part of Sonoma Valley, and its fate clearly affects a large swath of those who live here.
Some in the audience immediately wanted to know why the event was being hosted by the news media – California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which has broken stories about abuse at developmental centers across the state, and The Sonoma Index-Tribune – rather than the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), which oversees SDC and all the developmental centers, or some other public organization. David Bolling, Index-Tribune editor and publisher, explained that public communication about SDC has been difficult to initiate with DDS. “Somebody needed to initiate the conversation,” he said.
A spokesperson from DDS said no one from the agency attended the event to listen to feedback, although the administration was aware of the forum in advance.
A few factors sparked the conversation about the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center. The series of stories produced for California Watch by Ryan Gabrielson, investigating the developmental centers’ own police force, the Office of Protective Services, increased public awareness of the institutions. SDC has struggled to hold onto federal funding for all the eligible 290 residents who live in its Intermediate Care Facility-Developmental Disabilities (ICF-DD) units since receiving a notice from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) on Dec. 20 stating that it would be decertified as of Jan. 4 if certain “deficiencies” were not corrected. On Jan. 17, four units within SDC were withdrawn from consideration for the funding, costing the center $1.37 million a month. SDC also faces a possible loss of its license to operate.
Perhaps most relevant to the future of SDC, and all state developmental centers, is language in a trailer bill last July, that implemented a moratorium on admissions. Many took this as a clear indication of the state’s plans to close the developmental centers, even if only by attrition. (More than 60 percent of residents at SDC are over the age of 52.)
“Eventually, all of the centers will close,” said Coby Pizzotti, who represents the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians (CAPT) and participated in the forum panel. “The die has been cast,” he said.
“You’ve already heard the developmental centers are going to close. That’s been in the works for 40 years,” agreed Jim Shorter, executive director of Golden Gate Regional Center, who also participated in the panel. Shorter previously presided over closing the Agnews Developmental Center in San Jose.
He said, what family members need to be telling DDS is, “We want to be able to die and know that our family member is going to have a home.”
He encouraged those with family at SDC to demand a plan now.
“The handwriting may well be on the wall,” said panelist Kathleen Miller, who as a parent of a resident at SDC and the head of the Parents Hospital Association advocacy group, has been vocal on issues relating to SDC for years.
“I don’t know, but right now I’m concerned about right now,” she said. “The community does not feel ready for our folks.” When a developmental center closes, the people who lived in it need to be placed into the community, such as in for-profit board and care-type facilities.
Shorter, Pizzotti and Miller all agreed that DDS Director Terri Delgadillo has said at hearings in the past that, “The community is not ready to handle the closure of the developmental center.”
Despite the consensus that closure might be inevitable, the discussion, buoyed by responses from the audience, turned to ways the center could be kept open, and how its use could evolve to serve the larger community of the Valley.
Pizzotti, who is responsible for defending the jobs of the 551 psych techs currently employed at SDC, said there is another option. He posited an actual expansion of services at SDC. For one, with a greater population, the cost for care per resident goes down. “Sonoma has the capability of handling a much larger population,” he said.
“I’m going to go down kicking and screaming. I absolutely will not let this place close – over my dead body,” Pizzotti said to a large round of applause.
“Decertification came as a direct result of five straight years of budget cuts,” he further argued. The number of psych techs at SDC has fallen from 776 (treating 663 residents) in 2009 to 551 (treating 516 residents) today. “That’s a lot more pressure being placed on a staff doing the same amount of work,” he said.
Pizzotti raised the specter of employee intimidation by DDS, saying that many employees at SDC may not speak out for fear of retribution, as staff members in the audience nodded and murmured in affirmation.
“DDS is constantly facing state personnel board cases over whistleblowing,” remarked Gabrielson, citing cases he’s come across over the course of his reporting.
An employee who has worked at SDC for decades said privately on the condition of anonymity, before the meeting, that she was scared to speak on the record. Crumbling under the stress and a workload that has increased markedly since 2009, she said, “I almost want to curl up in a ball.” When asked why, she gave as a reason the fact that she’s seen employees summarily dismissed. “People disappear out there,” she said, her voice breaking. “If people want to get rid of you, they can.”
Since 2009, when furloughs started and staff left, retired or were fired without being replaced, “Things just started going downhill,” she said. “And the administration did that to us.”
Clearly Pizzotti does not disagree with her. “One of the biggest problems with all of DDS is management,” he said, listing “mismanagement of funds, mismanagement of staff.”
SDC employs more than 1,000 people, including the 551 psych techs, and is one of the largest employers in the county.
“Closing this place tomorrow would put Sonoma Valley into a serious economic recession,” warned Daniel Stolnit, the union rep for the state employees at SDC. Stolnit was among the many who also advocated on behalf of the center because of the unique set of services it offers.
“Some disabled folks do really, really well in small community-based for-profit facilities, some don’t. There are services provided at Sonoma and some of the other developmental centers that are not replicated anywhere else in the state,” he said. “For some of these folks, going to a community facility is a death sentence.”
One of the issues that clearly engaged the larger community was the fate of the more than 1,000 acres of, it must be said, prime real estate on which Sonoma Developmental Center sits. And discussion ranged from the possibility of developers turning the land into something very different, to new solutions that would involve marrying the needs of those with disabilities to the larger needs of the Valley.
Patrick Leslie, who stood to speak toward the end of the two-hour meeting and identified himself as a Catholic priest who has been a chaplain at SDC for 20 years, spoke emotionally about the good and hard work the staff there do every day.
He was also among those who suggested that the services of the many doctors, nurses, psychologists and others at SDC “with remarkable skills” be opened to the larger community. “I know there’s a lot of red tape and bureaucracy,” he said, “but I am amazed that we’re not talking about having SDC and the other developmental centers as clinics where all of this wonderful staff are available to those people in the community. … It’s time to break down the red tape that’s stopping us.”
Based on what she saw at the forum and the support in the wider community, Miller seemed more optimistic than she has in some time. “I feel like maybe we can keep this place open,” she said.