Last week’s report that Petaluma physician Van Peña had finally won a 12-year legal battle with the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) and the state of California, reinforces a troubling impression that, despite lawsuits and media revelations, the state’s developmental services bureaucracy still hasn’t learned how to face reality.
A federal court jury awarded Peña $1.35 million, plus legal fees, after he was fired in 2001 for blowing the whistle on countless cases of abuse at SDC that occurred during the 10 years he worked there as a physician. Peña’s focus was both abuse and the efforts by SDC officials and the administrative bureaucracy at DDS to cover it up.
Since Peña’s firing, numerous cases of rape have allegedly occurred, at SDC and the other board and care centers under the jurisdiction of DDS, in what has amounted to an investigative vacuum. Some 36 alleged rape victims failed to receive even the most rudimentary forensic examination between 2009 and 2012, according to a 2012 investigative report by California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Now, a follow-up California Watch report, by Ryan Gabrielson, details an abuse case at the Porterville Developmental Center – a secure (locked) treatment center housing forensic patients – in which, according to the report, six allegations of physical abuse, including rape, choking and battery have been placed in the personnel file of a 400-pound nursing assistant who was subsequently fired for illegally restraining and beating a patient in 2010, but has yet to be charged with a crime.
And an Index-Tribune interview with Ed Contreras, former chief of the SDC police force, revealed that more than 100 patient records detailing cases of abuse were removed from the Eldridge facility by DDS investigators during his tenure and without his approval, after which they were never seen again.
Both Contreras and Peña have shared with the Index-Tribune their concern that the SDC and DDS administrators in office during the periods of alleged abuse and cover-up they witnessed, have never, to their knowledge, been held accountable, legally or professionally, for the failures of the developmental services bureaucracy to adequately address abuse issues.
Meanwhile, a task force comprised of state officials, legislators and patient advocates is closing in on an end-of-the year deadline to complete a study and prepare a report addressing the future of the state’s developmental centers, prominently including SDC.
Missing in reports we have seen of task force deliberations are substantive discussions about abuse, cover-ups and the failure of DDS to appropriately address those issues.
From years of observation and relationships with SDC staff, we believe the vast majority of SDC employees are deeply dedicated caregivers committed to the health and safety of the facility’s clients.
But we also believe that a climate of fear and intimidation has infected the DDS culture, inhibiting the spread of sunlight and accountability.
We believe SDC should remain open for the care of the severely disabled, and open to transparent examination as well.