SDC’s information blockade
Requests for access met with frustration
The campus of the Sonoma Developmental Center, all 1,000 acres of it, may appear open, but the doors are closed – as are the lines of communication. The Department of Developmental Services (DDS), which runs SDC, has a history of withholding information, or outright obfuscation, which some have noted has only become more heightened as SDC has come under greater press scrutiny over abuse incidents and greater pressure from federal regulators for not meeting compliance standards.
Anyone can drive through SDC – Arnold Drive runs right through its center – and members of the public can often be found jogging, walking and hiking around different parts of the campus. The buildings themselves are, of course, off limits, but for all intents and purposes the campus is public land. But attempts to access even routine information about programs or the facility, or to interview members of the SDC staff, are regularly met with a virtual shut down of communication on the part of DDS.
Over the past few months, DDS has categorically refused every specific interview request the Index-Tribune has made to speak to anyone at SDC, from top-level administrators on down. Typically, the paper will be told by a DDS spokesperson that the request is being considered, and then two to three weeks later, will be told that the request has been denied.
Referred to Sacramento
Beginning in early December, when SDC received a notice from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) stating that it would be decertified if certain “deficiencies” were not corrected, up to this day, this paper has been unable to get a response from anyone at DDS or SDC besides an official spokesperson, even after repeated requests.
An in-person request for comment from Jorge “J.J” Fernandez, assistant to the interim executive director of SDC, Patricia Flannery, was flatly refused. When approached by a reporter from this paper at the SDC administration building in Eldridge in December, Fernandez returned from his office holding a post-it note with the name and contact information for the DDS spokesperson in Sacramento, which he handed to the reporter and refused to comment. He also, apparently, instructed the Office of Protective Services (OPS), the facility’s in-house police force, to question the reporter. The officer confirmed that he had been called by someone in the administration building to speak to the reporter.
made its first formal request to speak with an administrative leader at SDC on Dec. 18, 2012. That request was immediately refused with the response, “Due to the demands of meeting licensing deadlines associated with the recent actions, we are unable to agree to an interview.” On Jan 17, four units within SDC were withdrawn from consideration for federal funding, costing the center $1.37 million a month. SDC still also faces a possible loss of its license to operate. Subsequent requests for interviews during this period have taken weeks or longer, but have all been ultimately denied.
Ryan Gabrielson, a California Watch reporter who wrote a series of articles that appeared in this paper and elsewhere detailing abuses and mismanagement at DDS-run facilities, is more familiar with the agency’s practices than most. “The Department of Developmental Services takes months to release public records, not days or weeks as intended under state law. Long waits are the norm, even when I’ve requested very basic information, like employee hire dates,” he told the Index-Tribune in an emailed statement.
Under state law, DDS has 10 days to determine if it can comply with a Public Records Act (PRA) request – 14 days under “unusual circumstances” if the information is not readily available. At that time, the department is required to tell the person making the request how long it will take to fulfill.
On May 2, 2012, Gabrielson requested incident reports written by OPS at SDC to get more information surrounding alleged abuse and serious unexplained injuries going back to 2009. “After five months and 10 days, the department provided 45 pages of heavily redacted reports for part of 2012,” said Gabrielson. “More than five weeks later, I received a file with 101 pages, similarly blacked-out, documenting 2011 cases. In January, eight months and 16 days after I filed my records request, the state emailed me the 2010 reports.
“I continue to wait for 2009 files. The department refuses to provide estimates for when it will release the records,” he said.
“Media attention is not the problem.”
When SDC Interim Director Patricia Flannery addressed parents and family members of residents of the state-run facility on Jan. 12 on the SDC campus during a public meeting of the Parents Hospital Association (PHA) – a group that advocates for SDC residents and that often serves as a liaison between family members of residents and the administration – she was noticeably annoyed by the presence of a reporter from this paper. She made several references over the course of the meeting to the presence of media as a being a problem for her. None of the parents or family members present expressed similar concern over the invited reporter.
At one point Flannery said, “Staff feel somewhat demoralized by all the media attention,” the third or fourth time she’d made such an allusion, which prompted a family member to retort, “The media attention is not the problem. It’s what they’re talking about.”
On Jan. 22, the Index-Tribune made a formal request to view SDC employment materials, such as sample employee applications and handbooks. Told on Jan. 25 that the material was almost together, the paper still awaits their delivery.
The big picture
In an effort to paint a fuller picture of life at SDC for our readers, on Feb. 8, the Index-Tribune ran a story about a well-known SDC resident nicknamed Bucky, who can often be seen tossing rocks from the Marian Rose White bridge or waving at cars on Arnold Drive. In the weeks leading up to the story, the Index-Tribune made multiple requests to speak with someone on the SDC staff who cares for and knows Bucky to provide background for the story. We were told the request was under consideration on Jan. 15. The request for interview was ultimately refused on Jan. 25. The reporter found former staffers willing to speak off the record about Bucky, but even in speaking positively about SDC programs those employees feared retribution from DDS.
A related request, to speak to Doug Rice, who runs the Sunrise Industries Workshop, a program where SDC residents work for, and get paid by, local businesses, was also refused by a DDS spokesperson.
Multiple current and former employees of SDC, speaking off the record, have reported that there is a long-standing directive from DDS and administration for them not to speak to members of the press – at all, about anything.
The names and medical histories and privacy of the residents at SDC is protected under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). According to the California Department of Healthcare Services, “The HIPAA Privacy regulations require health care providers and organizations, as well as their business associates, develop and follow procedures that ensure the confidentiality and security of protected health information (PHI) when it is transferred, received, handled, or shared.” It protects the identities and privacy of residents at all the developmental centers.
DDS frequently invokes HIPAA when it denies requests for access or information, though it is often unclear how certain requests relate to HIPAA. For instance, why wouldn’t employees be allowed to speak to reporters voicing concerns about understaffing at the facility? Multiple employees and former employees have said they were told not to speak to reporters about these issues. DDS had no comment.
For another example, the Index-Tribune inquired how photographs of buildings at SDC – without identifiable clients in the photos – would violate resident’s privacy rights? On Jan. 22, the Index-Tribune received an email from a DDS spokesperson chiding the paper for having a photographer on the SDC campus taking photographs of buildings without permission. While the email admitted “the image that ran in the paper by Robbi Pengelly did not show any residents or staff,” it went on to say, “it still represents a sneaky attempt by the photographer with approval of newspaper management to get around the rules about media access.” When asked about this later, a DDS spokesperson reiterated that DDS must follow strict HIPAA guidelines and work hard to ensure the privacy of residents.
On Feb. 13, The Sonoma Index-Tribune received “Media Access Agreement” forms from DDS asking the paper not to access any state facility without prior written consent from DDS. The agreement the paper was asked to sign also asked it to agree to “use, and disclose confidential information only as authorized by the Department and the consumer or individual authorized to consent.”
The agreement goes far beyond most such access request forms, despite protestations from DDS that it is “standard.” In fact, Gabrielson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist who signed the forms to gain access to “film at the centers without being escorted out,” said the forms are “unlike anything I’ve encountered before,” and he doubted whether DDS would actually be able to enforce them.
“Nothing but silence.”
Difficulty in obtaining records, information and access from DDS is not limited to media outlets. Other organizations relying on DDS have experienced similar frustrations.
Kathleen Miller, who is the head of the PHA and the mother of a resident at SDC, has experienced delays and stalls on her own PRA requests. Miller said she made specific requests to access data she knew DDS was required to keep, data that would help her organization, which represents the families of residents of the developmental centers, plan for the future and assist its members. At first she received no response for longer than permitted by the PRA. When the request was eventually fulfilled, she said it was so shockingly inaccurate as to be barely usable.
Coby Pizzotti, who represents the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians (CAPT) – psych techs represent the largest group of direct-care staff at SDC and other state facilities – said his organization has hit similar roadblocks when requesting basic information.
Until 2009, CAPT received monthly reports from DDS on over-time hours its members had worked at state facilities. But then CAPT sent out a press release critical of the overtime situation and calling for more staff to be hired. Suddenly, the monthly reports stopped coming, and requests to get the information have not been returned.
Pizzotti says CAPT still gets the overtime information regularly from the state hospitals, but nothing from DDS. In addition, DDS has not been responsive for requests for meetings, Pizzotti said.
“We’ve offered several times to meet with DDS, we’ve asked for additional training in a couple of letters recently, and we haven’t heard back from them,” said Pizzotti. “We’ve heard nothing but silence.”