DDS is responsible for problems at SDC

By Mary O’Riordan

In his Dec. 3 editorial, David Bolling wrote, “A climate of fear and intimidation has infected the Department of Developmental Services culture, inhibiting the spread of sunlight and accountability.”

That is probably a very accurate description of the way this department in Sacramento has operated for years.

From what I have seen, at least over the past 12 years (during part of which time I was president of the SDC Parent Hospital Association), DDS has micro-managed SDC. So, in my opinion, DDS needs to be held accountable for anything bad that happened there.

For instance, I remember when a young, developmentally-disabled woman became pregnant and the director of SDC at the time had ordered DNA testing of all staff people who worked in any way in this unit and with this person. I, understandably, was not privy for the most part to information of this kind, and I do respect privacy for the family and the girl involved. But the minimal amount of information I got was provided when I asked about DNA testing and was told that it had been done, but that the sheriff’s office could not run the tests because it was at a time when there were severe staffing shortages and it would be more than a year before it could be done.

The administration at SDC wanted to use money from a fund they felt they could tap into for that cost, and DDS refused to allow them to do so. If the DNA testing had been done, it would have shown more responsibility on the part of SDC and DDS, and it would have cleared the employees who had been tested.

Over the years, many mistakes have been made and, unfortunately, our most vulnerable citizens are the ones who have suffered. First off, the Lanterman Act was so poorly written that it was, in fact, the beginning of the end for the developmental centers. There should have been something in that legislation to preserve the specialized care at the centers – the tradition of caring by employees who have worked there a long time, many of them for more than 50 years.

Familiarity with the care of this population is so important, and this specialized care cannot be acquired by just anyone in a short period of time. Also, some provisions should have been made for outpatient services so that those who were removed from SDC could come back for treatment with physicians and dentists who are familiar with their needs. The transition to board and care homes, and group homes, could have been gradual. And with an outpatient clinic established, where they could return for treatment, a lot of pain and suffering, and even death, could have been eliminated.

So all of these mistakes were made, and DDS, in my opinion, has been trying to get completely out of providing this care.

The establishment of the Regional Centers, with no oversight by DDS, was another mistake. One of our problems during the years has been the lack of a place in which to issue complaints. The regional centers always said they were directed by DDS, and yet DDS said they had no jurisdiction over the Regional Centers. In the meantime, so many deaths and so much suffering have been inflicted on these unfortunate, innocent, disabled people.

It’s time to look at the entire picture – it’s wrong to say that the board and care homes, or group homes, are wonderful, because they are not. The physicians and dentists out there are not familiar with this population and the specialized care they require. They are not qualified to treat them and, in most cases, do not want to treat them. So who is being harmed by all this confusion and lack of compassion and devotion to these vulnerable people?

The Task Force taking place at this time in Sacramento needs to interview more parents and family members of developmentally disabled people. They need to speak with staff at the developmental centers and in the group homes, and they need to speak with the developmentally disabled who are able to express their needs. This is the only way they can get a true picture of what is needed in the area of care – vendors and lobbyists do not give the required information.

I agree with the editorial that this facility needs to remain open for those with dangerous behaviors and for those who are medically frail and severely developmentally disabled. And the Department of Developmental Services needs to be open to transparent examination as well. Closing SDC is not the answer. Fix what needs fixing and let’s have the most wonderful center, which our most frail citizens deserve. We must put ourselves in their place and ask ourselves what we would want.

There is a lot of love at SDC, and some of the most caring workers, who need appreciation and recognition for the humanity they exhibit every day in caring for this vulnerable and sometimes difficult population.

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Mary O’Riordan is the former president of the Parent Hospital Association at Sonoma Developmental Center. The association is composed of parents and guardians of SDC residents and works to advocate on their behalf.