On Christmas day last year, there were 463 patients living at the Sonoma Developmental Center. A year earlier there were 516, a year before that there were 558, and a year before that, 602. You don’t have to look hard to spot a trend.
Back up another 15 years and SDC had a resident population of 1,164. And with, perhaps, 1,500 employees, it was virtually a town.
Now, like a melting glacier, the trend is both obvious and apparently inexorable. And like a melting glacier, it seems at times to be guided by forces outside human control, or at least, local human control.
There are multiple reasons for the glacial diminution of SDC, but the most important one for this discussion is the moratorium on new admissions imposed on all California developmental centers in 2012. Since then, no new admissions have been allowed, except for law enforcement cases and last resort crises. And with an average resident age north of 50, attrition keeps reducing the population while increasing the cost of keeping and caring for each resident. It is now approaching $400,000 per person.
Even without the so-called “deflection” policy, admissions had been dropping long enough and fast enough to suggest an end time was approaching. The Lanterman Act, a landmark law passed in 1969 that codified civil rights for the developmentally disabled and dictated at least semi-independent placement in the community whenever possible, spawned an exodus from the centralized centers into community homes that has topped 10,000 people.
It was an enlightened policy and helped end the practice of warehousing disabled people just for the sake of convenience. But some advocates for the developmentally disabled now argue that, on the one hand, the populations remaining have been sifted to such an extent that only the most severely disabled are left, and that, on the other hand, burgeoning populations of patients with autism spectrum disorders are in need of precisely the kind of care and housing that SDC provides so well, but isn’t allowed to offer.
Last Saturday, a parade of parents and guardians, with relatives and wards still living among the shrinking population at SDC, painted a bleak picture of the future awaiting their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, should the center be completely closed.
Gathered at a meeting of the Parent Hospital Association on the bucolic SDC campus, a parade of speakers testified to the unique quality of the care and treatment their loved ones receive there, and to a man and woman they questioned whether moving them out into small group homes, without daily medical care and appropriately-trained staff, would be feasible, safe or humane.
One woman spoke of a severely-disabled brother who has been at SDC for 35 years, needs around-the-clock care and a crane to lift him out of bed and into a chair. “My brother would not survive if he were taken out and put in any other home,” she said.
Another woman who works as an advocate for disabled clients said she had discovered that, “Many outside doctors have no idea how to treat (developmentally disabled) patients. Many SDC patients see a doctor every day. No group home has daily access to a doctor.”