Future of Sonoma Developmental Center under review

A state task force set up to propose future scenarios for California’s four remaining Developmental Centers is expected to complete its work by the end of the year, but not by its November target date.

That according to Kathleen Miller, a task force member and president of the Parent Hospital Association at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC). Miller’s group advocates on behalf of the facility’s residents, whose number had dropped to 476 by late September from more than 1,200 15 years ago.

Miller said the conclusions that can be reasonably drawn from the discussions held on a monthly basis since July are that, on the one hand, SDC won’t be sold by the state to private developers but that, on the other hand, its mission and resident population will likely change. What that change will be isn’t yet clear, Miller said, but it is not likely to happen quickly.

That there is a high-level strategy conversation occurring at the highest levels of state government is further evidence that the century-old system of large, state-run residential treatment facilities for the developmentally disabled, is inching toward some kind of closure.

Miller believes that the effort will be made to transition as many SDC residents as possible out of the 863-acre campus nestled at the edge of Glen Ellen and into community-based care facilities sometimes called group living homes. Currently, Miller said, there are about 200 “medical” residents at SDC, requiring varying degrees of specialized medical attention. One school of thinking reflected in the task force discussions, Miller explained, is the belief that most, if not all, of the medical residents can be transferred into group homes, which are usually run by private, for-profit corporations.

Most of the remaining 276 SDC residents are generally classified as “behavioral,” meaning that they are higher-functioning residents but with significant behavior histories sometimes requiring greater supervision, security and restraint than medical residents.

Miller, whose adult son is a longtime SDC resident, is classified as “behavioral” and she doesn’t believe the outcome for him in a community-based group home would be favorable.

For that reason, she said, “I don’t see facilities for this population going away, but I do see change; there will be change coming.”

One factor influencing the speed of that change is the absence of sufficient group living homes distributed around the state in areas of need. Parents and guardians of developmentally disabled residents almost universally want their wards and family members situated as close to home as possible, which largely eliminates the likelihood of two or more developmental centers being collapsed into one.

But summary notes from the most recent task force meeting indicate one solution under consideration is to utilize existing campuses for placement of privately-run group homes, with the state entering into public-private partnerships “to provide community integrated services, where appropriate.”

The one certainty to emerge from the task force deliberations seems to be that the Porterville Developmental Center, north of Bakersfield, will remain in operation as a Secure Treatment Program (STP) because the residents – most of whom have “involvement” with the criminal justice system, require locked facilities and additional protective security.

One model now being talked about for a future SDC configuration is the Costa Mesa facility known as Harbor Village, where group homes have been established on the grounds of the Fairview Developmental Center, where the population has dropped from nearly 1,000 in 1994 to 324 in September.

No figures have yet emerged from the task force discussions as to what a viable resident population would be at SDC, where the annual cost per resident is about $320,000.

The next task force meeting is set for mid-November, and Miller said a final meeting will probably be held in December. She expressed confidence that a final report will be prepared by the end of the year.