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Need for transparency at SDC

Sonoma Developmental Center. Index-Tribune file photo

Sonoma Developmental Center. Index-Tribune file photo

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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.

  • Mary O’Riordan

    “A climate of fear and intimidation has infected the Department of Developmental Services culture, inhibiting the spread of sunlight and accountability” 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, DDS has micro-managed SDC, so in my opinion, anything bad that happened DDS needs to be held responsible for. 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 to information of this kind for the most part and I do respect privacy for the family and the girl involved, but the minimal amount of information I got was when I asked about DNA testing and I was told that it had been done, but the Sheriff’s office could not run the tests as it was at a time when there was 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 this money and DDS refused to allow them to do so. If this had been done, it would have shown more responsibility on the part of SDC and DDS and 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 and was in fact the beginning of the end for the developmental centers. There should have been
    something in that legislation to preserves the specialized care at the centers – the tradition of caring by employees who have worked there, many of them, for over 50 years. Familiarity with the care of this population is so important and this specialized care cannot be acquired by 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, have 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 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 and 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 which is 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 your 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 needs to be open to transparent examination as well. Closing it is not the answer, FIX what needs fixing and let’s have the most wonderful Center, which our most frail citizens deserve. 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, they need appreciation and recognition for the humanity they exhibit every day in caring for this vulnerable and sometimes difficult population.