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Editorial: End of the road beckons to SDC

At the end of this year, if the state Department of Developmental Services’ schedule remains intact, California’s oldest facility for the developmentally disabled will close its doors forever.

Over the course of the next several months, the nearly 150 residents remaining at the Sonoma Developmental Center will join more than 300 other recent SDC residents who have transitioned into smaller, more town-centric group homes since Gov. Brown three years ago announced plans to shutter the now 126-year-old institution.

It will be as much an end of an era for Sonoma Valley as it will for the very concept of care for the developmentally disabled – which has undergone a sea change in philosophy since the facility opened its doors to 148 residents in 1891 under the name the California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded.

Fortunately, more dignified names for the clients of Eldridge would come over the years. But, more importantly, so would modern practices in care for the developmentally disabled – from improvements in training for caregivers to better use of preventative measures to ward off health complications to the integration of technology in resident services. If the 20th century model was ostensibly dedicated to the health, safety and general welfare of the developmentally disabled – and its record is certainly spotty in regards to all three – the 21 century is about treating them, not only as members of society, but as valued members.

The end of that old paradigm was, fittingly, at the literal end of the 20th century. In 1999, the United States Supreme Court sided with plaintiffs in Olmstead v. L.C., a decision which essentially rendered it illegal to unnecessarily segregate disabled people from the benefits of inclusion in larger society. Suddenly, separate institutions for the disabled like the 860-acres of Eldridge weren’t merely unfashionable, they were unconstitutional. Still, it took another 10 years for the U.S. Justice Department, under the Obama administration, to launch aggressive efforts to enforce the Olmstead decision; and here we are 10 years later at the culmination of those efforts in Sonoma Valley.

As reported last month by I-T reporter Christian Kallen (“Shutdown of SDC Still Set for 2018,” Feb. 27), the wheels are still in motion for closure of the venerable campus this year; a site assessment conducted by the state’s lease holder, the Department of General Services, is currently underway. Site analysts at the firm WRT won the $2 million assessment contract last May, and are preparing “a comprehensive existing conditions study and an opportunities and constraints summary and analysis for SDC.”

In other words, they’re going to recommend what types of uses should – and shouldn’t – be in the cards as Eldridge forwards into the future.

While community stakeholders wait to see what’s in store for the vast state-owned lands, one thing is certain about what it won’t be: the place its remaining 150 residents know as home.

Many have lived at SDC for significant portions of their lives. Some arrived as kids, after their parents had come to the heartbreaking realization that they couldn’t properly care for their own children. Memories of moving-day car rides between home and SDC are permanently and painfully etched in the minds of family members, the soft voices behind the hard promises of compulsory institutionalization.

At some point this year, everyone will make that ride again – from SDC to a new home. For many, it will still be painful; and for many it will still be voiceless.

Perhaps the world’s strongest voice for people with disabilities was Helen Keller. And, though her struggles were not developmental – Keller’s nearly lifelong loss of sight and hearing were thought to be the result of a bout with Scarlet Fever as an infant – she was one of history’s few spokespersons from the ranks of the severely beset. As relocations forge on this year and Sonoma Valley’s long-held impressions of SDC fade like ghosts into memory, some may find comfort in how Keller once assessed her lot in life:

“It has been said that life has treated me harshly; and sometimes I have complained in my heart because many pleasures of human experience have been withheld from me,” she said. “(But) if much has been denied me, much, very much, has been given me.”

Let’s hope those departing SDC will also find some of that “pleasure of human experience” as they embark upon their new lives.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.