The veil lifts on SDC
Like a melting glacier that shrinks steadily but almost imperceptibly before your eyes, the population – and the human footprint – at the Sonoma Developmental Center has been contracting for years.
The patient population has fallen to roughly half the figure of just a decade ago, when more than 1,100 residents lived in the tree-shaded tranquility of the bucolic campus just outside Glen Ellen.
That reduction has been shadowed by a decline in staffing, apparently in disproportionate numbers, driven in part by the chronic state budget crisis. One result of all this is that the quality of life – if not the quality of care – given the residents of SDC has been in decline as well.
The adult services program was closed last year when state funding was terminated, eliminating a variety of classes addressing mobility access, communication, sensory motor stimulation and various leisure pursuits.
There was a time when even some of the most severely disabled residents were taken on field trips around the Valley, into redwood forests or out to the coast. Those were life-enhancing experiences that apparently don’t happen much, if at all, any more.
And the shortage of staff means more caregivers are working 16-hour days and pushing the prudent boundaries of endurance.
Despite all that, and the frustrating absence of transparent communication from administrators in the bowels of the developmental disabilities bureaucracy, parents and guardians of SDC residents remain deeply grateful for the care and treatment their family members and wards receive, and they lavish praise on the people who provide that care.
All that was the context of an unprecedented public forum held Wednesday night at Ramekins Culinary School and Event Center in Sonoma, to explore the problems, the promise and the future of SDC.
Close to 140 people showed up and, in the course of two hours, many concerns, experiences and expert opinions were expressed. Most significantly, the veil of enforced silence that has seemed to separate SDC employees from the public and the press appeared to lift.
While a prominent part of the evening’s agenda was the abuse revealed by California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, it was clear that a majority of the audience wanted to focus on steps to improve SDC and protect it from imminent closure.
Given the fact that the center employs some 1,400 people, with an annual budget of about $146 million, the prospect of the thousand-acre campus closing is sobering. Developmental disabilities professionals on the forum panel agreed that, for SDC, closure isn’t a question of if, but of when, although they said “when” seemed to be 10-to-20-years away.
But while Coby Pizzoti, a consultant to the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, agreed with that prognosis, he also resisted it, vowing, “I’m going to go down kicking and screaming.”
More to the point, for the first time in memory, a nucleus of current and former staff and other community members appeared interested in a proactive effort to chart alternative futures for SDC that would somehow insure its role as a haven for care and healing into the long future.
It was a memorable evening, and time will tell.